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Mac Miller - Swimming (Album Review)

Tuesday, 21 August 2018 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

Few artists have managed to pivot as effectively as rapper and producer Mac Miller, at least in the eyes of his peers. The Pittsburgh-born up-and-comer's 2011 debut 'Blue Slide Park', a hipster-friendly party rap album in the vein of Asher Roth, was as disposable as it was inoffensive.

It remains debatable whether the 180 that followed was a sign of Miller's growing maturity or if he simply read a few scathing reviews, but his following albums were marked by lush samples, neat production and existential lyrics. When Miller was namedchecked on Kendrick Lamar's legendary call-out verse on Big Sean's Control, it must have felt like the final validation.

And yet, five years on from that verse, Miller still sounds like he's striving and struggling to put together an impactful and coherent release. His impressionistic 2014 mixtape 'Faces' came closest as he crooned about family and drug addiction over creative jazz loops, but subsequent material has felt more aimless. For all 'Swimming' is his most instrumentally consistent record, composed of soulful bass-driven grooves and funky melodic lines, it ultimately proves another misstep.

As harsh as it may be, a principal reason for this is his voice. Fans may roll their eyes – Miller's nasal delivery and monotone patterns have always been measured elements of his sound he's been criticised for nonetheless – but when matched with listless production this becomes a problem. 'Swimming' is aptly named: listeners are invited to drift along as Miller spits delicate wordplay amid a lo-fi haze on cuts like Wings and Jet Fuel. Tone-wise, Mick Jenkins' 'The Water[s]' tape is a good point of reference, minus the emphatic delivery and clever turns of phrase.

Maybe it's unfair to criticise Miller too much for his lethargic approach as much of the record is inspired by his high profile break-up with pop sensation Ariana Grande. Unfortunately, any attempts to explore self and deal with psychological trauma are expressed through poorly sung hooks (Small Worlds) and cliched metaphors (“Let's get lost in the clouds,” on Dunno). Moments like this only serve to transform the record from merely pleasant to outright grating.

With that said, there's no beat on here that is outright dislikeable and Miller is often simply content to use his voice to compound the Internet-esque neo-soul progressions provided by the raft of producers behind him. Notably, there are no guest features on the album, though there are vocal contributions from J Cole and Snoop Dogg among others. On more hip hop-oriented tracks, such as the standout Hurt Feelings, this actually shines the spotlight on Miller's flows and rhythmic abilities; the disembodied funk of Ladders is another highlight.

Much of the time, though, it's as if Miller's all too willing to put his own limitations under the microscope. Penultimate cut 2009 is a low water mark as his vocal line counteracts a sweeping string-laden beat to frustrating effect. It's not entirely Miller's fault: his willingness to experiment and be introspective are artistic traits. But, ultimately, he's simply not gifted enough an auteur to carry an hour-long record.

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