Over the course of his career, Mac Miller has proved himself a force to be reckoned with, within the hip-hop world. His four studio albums and eleven mixtapes, along with a plethora of other records, illustrate his growth as an artist and as an individual over the eleven years he’s been in the game. While many other artists in music have experienced the rise and fall of their own careers within that same amount of time (or even less), Mac Miller has been able to sustain his relevancy organically as his sound, style, and creative ability have matured over time.
Although his body of work could be considered multi-faceted, it isn’t fragmented. Even though Mac has everything from bangers to sad songs in his rap vocabulary, everything he’s put out has been true to self. Even when he plays the character of Larry Lovestein or Delusional Thomas (his alternate musical identities), he uses them to liberate himself from what he calls the ”prison of perception,” and effectively inches closer to an objective truth he is exploring and confronting within the self. At least, that’s one way to look at it.
Following the same train of thought, one could consider each of his albums to represent various sides of himself at different stages throughout his career. “Sure,” you might be thinking, “that could be said about a lot of artists’ work.” True, but in Mac Miller’s case, there might be more levels to this sh*t than one might recognize at a glance. At the end of the day, Mac leaves a lot up for interpretation when it comes to his work, but that’s exactly what we have to do if we want to fully appreciate the artistic value of what he has to show. Using a generous amount of speculation, Mac Miller’s albums might hold hidden meanings that are easily overlooked by the majority of his fans.
— Rappers Said (@RappersSaid) November 9, 2015
Let’s start by observing Mac Miller’s debut album, Blue Slide Park. Mac dropped the album at the age of 19, having just recently graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh the year before. The album is heavily influenced by Mac’s roots, illustrated not only by the fact that it’s named after a park two blocks away from his high school, but also through the various references to his hometown on the tracklist. Songs like “English Lane,” “Party on Fifth Ave.,” and “Frick Park Market,” all carry references to Pittsburgh. Mac explains the concept for the album in his own words in an interview with Hard Knock TV:
I had a little trouble coming up with a title and a concept [for the album], and I kind of just decided that it’s all about this… I haven’t even left where I came from. I live at my mom’s crib right now, just coolin’ out. I’m about to get a crib when I get back off tour, but I mean, it’s not like a huge thing for me. I’m still the same kid when I go back home; nothing changes. So, Blue Slide Park is kinda like… You know, you go crazy in life, you go out, you become a big business mogul, you go out and do all this stuff in your life, and you come home and there’s still the same park right there. They could add jungle gyms, they could add… Whatever they add to renovate it and make it new, but the slide is still gonna be blue, you know what I’m saying? It’s kind of an ode to not only being truthful about where I came from and honest about it, but loving it, and loving the place I was raised.
Mac hasn’t gone on record to explain anything behind the cover art for the album, and in all honesty, it doesn’t look as though there is much that could be said about it at all. The cover art shows a large blue stripe, presumably an abstract representation of the blue slide, superimposed over a collection of triangles. Considering that Mac’s 2016 album is titled The Divine Feminine, what if this album contained themes of masculine energy?
Mac himself may not have known it at the time, but a snobby art professor could have a field day with this cover. First off, the representation of the blue slide could be seen as a phallic symbol. No, this is not saying that Mac was consciously trying to sneak in phallic imagery into his debut album cover art, but as they say, art imitates life. Blue has been said to be a masculine color, but at the same time, blue is often associated with water, which has been said to be a feminine element. Even though there is a literal blue slide in an actual park, the color could potentially hold symbolic weight depending on one’s perspective.
Additional masculine imagery could be interpreted in the triangles shown in the background. Symbolically, point-up triangles have been said to represent masculine energy. Taking it a step further, this is supported by the male and female pyramids of a merkaba, of which the male pyramid is pointing upwards. Again, Mac may have not intended for the cover to be viewed in this light, but it is worth noting that the star of David is a two-dimensional representation of a merkaba. Mac Miller was raised jewish, so there’s a ghost of a chance he was aware of the symbolism when the cover art was in the works. Still, the way the triangles are arranged on the cover art, create inverted triangles in between the filled-in triangles, providing somewhat of an aesthetic and symbolic counter-balance.
Two years later, Mac Miller released his second studio album, titled Watching Movies With The Sound Off. Unlike his earlier album, it would be hard to argue that the artwork of this one doesn’t contain loads of symbolic imagery, especially because Mac Miller himself says that it does.
The album art shows Mac sitting at a table in the nude with an apple placed in front of him, all in front of an entirely red background. On the left, an ornate vase with flowers peeks into frame, and on the right, a golden figurine of a cherub hangs from the ceiling. In his Noisey interview, Mac confirms that his nudity holds symbolic value. The interviewer suggests that it means this project would be more personal than others in the past, but one could read even deeper into it. Mac’s nudity strongly suggests that the apple on the table represents the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Although the apple sits in front of Mac ready to be eaten, Mac is still unclothed and the apple has no bite marks.
The elements on the left and right sides of the cover art could potentially represent the feminine and masculine energies he stands between in life. Flowers have often been used in art to symbolize or depict femininity, and the hanging cherub is a distinctly Christian symbol which, at its core, is a patriarchal religion. Another notable nuance of the image can be found in the lighting. It seems as though the light in the photo is emanating from the flowers in the vase, which would emphasize and perhaps glorify the feminine energy if viewing the cover art from an allegorical perspective. If Blue Slide Park did indeed hold a symbolic emphasis on masculinity, Watching Movies With The Sound Off may illustrate a heightened importance of the feminine in Mac’s life. Interestingly enough, the main color of Mac Miller’s album art went from blue to red, which are generally thought to be dichotomic colors.
In an interview with Noisey, Mac Miller describes how this album is set apart from projects he’s done in the past:
It’s a lot more personal… A lot of it comes from inside myself, you know. It was a lot of shutting out the rest of the world and finding the inspiration inside of myself. It was healthy and cleansing. Macadelic dealt a lot with my old girlfriend and a lot of it was driven by my relationship at that time. But with this record, I removed everything in my life. I had to sit there and do some soul searching.
If Watching Movies is an illustration of Mac’s search of internal truth, his previous album may have been somewhat of an illustration of an external truth. We are all products of our environment, but Mac’s sophomore album art shows him stripped of that environment (which was the theme of his debut album) to expose the other side of the coin; the naked truth, so to speak. Mac’s nudity could be an illustration of that nakedness in this context, with the apple representing a choice between two elements at play on the left and right of the cover art.
The title of Watching Movies With The Sound Off refers to Mac Miller’s practice of watching movies with the sound off while in the studio for visual inspiration when writing music. Even though he does this in real life, the “sound” referred to in the title could have a double meaning. By cutting out the “noise” of life, he switches the source of his inspiration from external to internal and finds an entirely new truth. The looming cherub may be intentionally tucked away from the light, which might represent a departure from an old dedication
The fact that the looming cherub is both golden and tucked in the shadows may represent a recognition of a lesser or flawed relationship with the masculine, or to put it even more simply, whatever the opposite of nature may be. The term “gilded” can be defined in two ways: “covered or highlighted with gold or something of a golden color,” or “having a pleasing or showy appearance that conceals something of little worth,” so maybe the “gilded” cherub means that Mac was at a stage in his career where he was disillusioned with his perception or relationship with the masculine energy, or something to that effect. The fact that the cable or string holding the cherub up is so visible emphasizes the artificiality of the cherub, considering “real” cherubs have wings to fly with.
Mac Miller’s third studio album, GO:OD AM is much less convoluted in terms of cover art, but still holds a fair amount of symbolic weight if you look for it. All that’s shown on the cover is Mac Miller’s face in the middle of a yawn set over a white background. Just four days after the album’s release in September 2015, Hypebeast released an interview in which Mac was asked the meaning behind the title of the album. “It’s split like a clock — like how 12:30 is four digits,” Mac says. “So G, O, colon, O, D and then AM. It’s more like clarity — if you were on a weeklong acid trip and you sleep for two days, and you walk outside and you’re like, ‘Oh sh*t, reality.’ That’s what the album is — back to reality.”
To get a better idea of Mac Miller’s progression from Watching Movies to GO:OD AM, one could look at the mixtapes he dropped in between the albums: Delusional Thomas and Faces. What is arguably more striking than their mixtape cover art is the content of the mixtapes themselves. Delusional Thomas is one of Mac’s characters, an alter ego of sorts whose raps have said to have elements of horrorcore. Extreme violence and drug use are heavily prevalent in this tape, and Mac has even described the high-pitched voice that he gives Thomas sounds like “that evil voice inside your head is always kind of in that pitch” in an interview with Noisey.
His next mixtape, Faces, was dropped roughly half a year after Delusional Thomas was released and deals with themes of drug use in a much more serious an sobering perspective. In a sense, Watching Movies could have documented somewhat of a descent into madness for Mac Miller, with Delusional Thomas being the greatest abstraction of his creative self before returning to the “reality” he mentions in his GO:OD AM interview with Hypebeast. If Mac did indeed decide to pursue the feminine/natural energy that was represented by the vase of flowers on the cover of Watching Movies, perhaps his circumstances at the time led him to pursue it in an unbalanced manner. If this is true, GO:OD AM may have been a movement towards that balance that he was lacking.
Mac described how he had shut out the rest of the world in the process of Watching Movies to explore himself, so it might be the case that GO:OD AM is a recognition of that same aspect of self he was searching for. The cover art for Watching Movies and GO:OD AM both show Mac’s face, but the reductionist approach Mac takes with depicting himself on the latter may be a subtle demonstration of a more refined approach to self discovery and acceptance.
Some of these claims can be substantiated by an interview Mac did with Larry King. In the interview, Mac Miller describes how he intended GO:OD AM to be a departure from the dark and depressing music he had been making at the time, and that he wanted the album to be more “confident” and “positive” instead.
A standout detail of the cover art of GO:OD AM can be seen in the colors used, or rather, a lack thereof. If it’s considered true that Blue Slide Park and Watching Movies had emphases on masculine and feminine energies, respectively, GO:OD AM may be a conscious movement towards the masculine. Not only does it show Mac “waking up,” but the black and white color scheme could be seen as the opposite of feminine, as femininity often has to do with creativity, beauty, and emotion (e.g. mythological sirens and muses). The overt creativity and loud colors that were present in Watching Movies and even in Blue Slide Park are not to be found. However, both Blue Slide Park and GO:OD AM have white backgrounds, which could represent a return to familiar themes or energies, but with a new approach.
If all this speculation holds up at all, Mac Miller’s next album, The Divine Feminine, could easily be described as a movement back towards the feminine energy, but with a healthier and more optimistic approach than in the past. Over the span of his four studio albums, seems to be jumping back and forth between a yin and a yang in search of an equilibrium, which he seems to find in increasing measure with each album that he’s released.
At this stage in his career, Mac has gotten romantically involved with Ariana Grande, and he doesn’t try to hide her influence on the album. With nearly all of his songs on the project having a possible reference to her, her intro vocals and feature virtually confirm her as Mac’s muse. In fact, one could argue that Grande’s presence in Mac’s life is a manifestation of the divine feminine, which would give every reference and discussion of her on the album a double meaning. Mac clarifies this relationship in his explanation behind the album’s concept in an interview with Billboard:
I mean to me, women have always been the sturdiest people in my life and have been incredible sources of energy. I don’t know if I’m a feminist, but I just know that I am all for outspoken, powerful women. I’m blessed with them in my life. I don’t know if that makes me a feminist. A lot of this record is about the energy surrounding this planet. It’s a feminine one — Mother Earth. We need to hold that up as something sacred.
In terms of the album artwork on his latest album, there’s a lot that could be interpreted. As his studio albums have alternated between white and red backgrounds, The Divine Feminine seems to have a mix of both, which could represent a balance between the two ends of the spectrum that he’s been exploring. The format of the imagery shares parallels to his GO:OD AM album as well. Both have some form of a portrait, as GO:OD AM shows himself and The Divine Feminine shows a woman whose face is masked by an image of clouds. The facelessness of the album’s subject may allude to the divine nature of women and Mother Earth itself, as it is without ego or static form. As his initial three studio albums have been explorations of the self, the maturity that Mac has gained over that period of time may have helped him get to a place where he can help shape himself through a focus on the other, rather than the self. If this is the case, it seems the link that he has found between the two is love, which he credits as the inspiration of the album in the same Billboard interview:
This record is inspired by the world… This is really the first album I’ve ever made with a happy ending, so I think where the record ends up is something very different. A lot of it was inspired just by the universe, the story of love, and the emotion of love, how love affects me is different now.
Ultimately, it is left up to the individual to interpret the meaning of any work of art, but that shouldn’t be used as a reason to inhibit any discussion of it. In fact, many artists encourage this kind of discussion and even celebrate it. It will be interesting to see what Mac Miller’s next album will look like, and more of the same kind of speculation may be to come throughout the hip-hop community. What do you think about these ideas? Let us know in the comments below.