Like so many aspects of his life, the collective goodbye to Mac Miller — the beloved Pittsburgh rapper who died Friday at the age of 26 — was different. It wasn’t that Miller lacked material. To the contrary, he was one of this decade’s most prolific artists, following the release of 2011 breakout projects Best Day Ever and Blue Slide Park with numerous albums, mixtapes, singles, and guest appearances. And in recent years, he had dropped a series of projects at odds with the party-loving persona that characterized his early work, pivoting to a prestige brand of funk-infused hip-hop that impressed longtime fans and won over skeptics.
But as those online processed the news of Miller’s passing in real time, his character took precedent. Artists and journalists who had interacted with the rapper shared stories of a person endlessly curious, unflinchingly kind, and universally beloved.
Yes, there was good music — a lot of it. But unlike many of his peers in the industry, Miller’s demeanor helped to define his career. Born Malcolm McCormick on January 19, 1992, Miller started taking piano lessons at six — his talent on the keys was one of his many underrated skills — and experimented with other instruments before releasing his debut mixtape in 2007. By 2010, he was ably sampling Nas on “Nikes on My Feet,” an essential cut from his 2010 mixtape K.I.D.S. (Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit). The following year, his viral banger “Donald Trump” received praise from the future president himself.
Early on, many considered Miller a punchline. Though Blue Slide Park‘s stories of shots, spliffs, and seducing the ladies made it a commercial splash — it was the first independently distributed album to top Billboard‘s albums chart since 1995 — and a fixture of frat quads, it garnered scathing reviews. In drawing earnestly, if crudely, on his own experiences, Miller earned a devoted following while spurning the tastemakers musicians often strive to please.
But Miller responded with an open heart. He used his tremendous popularity to elevate others in the hip-hop community. In 2012, as Kendrick Lamar was coming into his own, Miller invited him on tour as an opener. A year later, he repeated the gesture with Chance the Rapper, as the MC was rising from Windy City hero to national phenom. “U let me come over everyday and be whoever I wanted,” SZA wrote in an Instagram post memorializing Miller, who produced tracks on her 2014 EP Z. “My gratitude is infinite. The first person to believe in me and make stuff w me.”
Simultaneously, Miller reinvented himself artistically. Rather than settling into a groove — and the easy fame and money that would’ve accompanied a career of cookie-cutter party-rap — he relocated to Los Angeles, connected with members of the Odd Future, Top Dawg Entertainment, and Brainfeeder crews, and found a fresh sound along the way. Suddenly, the MC many associated with groan-inducing, debaucherous rhymes had a bona fide critical success in 2013’s Watching Movies With the Sound Off, featuring contributions from Pharrell, Flying Lotus, Earl Sweatshirt, and more.
It wasn’t just cosigns. Miller’s verses were expanding thematically, and he was developing into an unsung force behind the boards. Simple punchlines evolved into complex meditations on addiction, mental illness, and interpersonal relationships. His beats riffed on the moody, understated instrumentals of his peers. The advancements coalesced on Faces, the mixtape he released on Mother’s Day, 2014. Across 85 minutes and 24 tracks — 14 of which he produced himself, under his Larry Fisherman moniker — Miller led listeners on an introspective odyssey, where he was as likely to sample a Bill Murray monologue from Meatballs as he was to tell chilly tales of self-destruction: “Suppose I’ll die alone from an overdose of some sort,” he raps on “San Francisco.”
Until Miller’s death, Faces scanned as an emotional bloodletting. Internal strife was always the focal point of his music, but across subsequent albums, the rhymes felt less tethered to the present, less observational than a series of recollections. Miller found love, for a time, with Ariana Grande, and sharpened his craft further with 2015’s GO:OD AM, 2016’s The Divine Feminine, and last month’s Swimming.
He increasingly paired lines about struggle with ones about triumph, and as he incorporated more funk and R&B into his songs, they felt redemptive. He was singing more than ever; in one of his final interviews, he mentioned he was considering vocal lessons. The songs weren’t exactly feel-good, but they had a sense of tranquility: Lined with sultry John Mayer guitar riffs, Swimming’s “Small Worlds” breathes with life and possibility. “I think I know it all, but I don’t.”
“I didn’t expect to play on his album the day he played some songs for me at his house, but when I heard ‘Small Worlds,’ I gave it a short, chirpy little ‘yup,’ which is the highest praise I can give a track,” Mayer wrote on Instagram. “I grabbed the nearest guitar in the room and within a couple of hours we had finished a tune that made me so incredibly happy to have a part in, not to mention we established a nice little friendship.”
The collaborative environment Miller fostered transcended collegiality — it was pure camaraderie. That’s how he assembled oddball teams like Snoop Dogg, Syd, Thundercat, and Dâm-Funk on Swimming’s“What’s the Use?” and why the results skewed more organic than other records with sprawling credits. It’s also why the grief around his death has been so deep, for so many. In a world that too often seems starved for decency and kindness, Miller offered both in spades.