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Circles, Mac Miller’s sixth studio album and first posthumous release, is the other necessary half to 2018’s Swimming. Conceptually, Miller viewed both together as Swimming in Circles, as his family revealed recently, and he was well into recording it when he died in September 2018. As such, he left the world with Swimming as his final graceful exploration of the slow, almost painful process of healing.
Circles, out today (January 17), carries that pain and looks from the water to the cloudy skies. There’s something to smile about, and though it might not be here yet, it’s just over the horizon. Rap takes a backseat here to more melodic explorations; through producer Jon Brion’s diligent work, these dozen tracks find Miller mumbling, singing, chanting, and whispering to himself like there’s no audience, as if he’s singing into the mirror for the ultimate pep talk. As he sifts through his psyche to process a past relationship, he delivers some of his most intense, emotional, and gripping lyrics, often stripping back metaphors, similes, and punchlines to bring puffy-eyed catharsis.
Circles finds Miller taking responsibility for past choices and hints at having a better state of mind. This new sense of peace is best illustrated on “Surf,” where he declares, “I’m starting to see that all I have to do is get up and go,” a strong statement that lets you know that, in the end, all the mind needs is time.
Listen to Circles, and below, find a track-by-track guide that highlights how each song shows the album’s hard-fought trek from a dangerous sea to the safety of the shore.
Key lyrics: “Well this is what it looks like right before you fall / Stumbling around, you been guessing your direction, except you can’t see at all”
How it resonates: The title track sets the mood and tone, continuing the drowning feeling from Swimming. Slow and lumbering, Mac tries to figure out where to go when he’s kicking his feet in the water in the middle of nowhere. This line begins the album in the now; Miller keeps returning to the startling line.
Key lyrics: “Before I start to think about the future / First can I please get through today?”
How it resonates: The stinging synths of singe your inner ears as Miller, cozying up to an easy-grooving set of drums, questions why things just can’t be simple for a moment: “Does it always gotta / Gotta be so complicated?”
Key lyrics: “Reality is so hard to find / When the Devil’s trying to call your line / Shit, I always shine”
How it resonates: Miller’s funkiest and eeriest Circles tune sounds like Dr. Manhattan and eight clones yelling into an echoing cave. With a slightly uptempo, yet endlessly energetic backdrop built around ethereal voices, Miller wags his finger at temptation and shouts out his resilience. It’s a high spot that brings some positivity.
Key lyrics: “I spent the whole day in my head / Do a little spring cleaning”
How it resonates: This one sounds like Miller’s whispering with a hat over his face on a beach. He’s referenced being inside of his head before on Swimming’s “Come Back to Earth, with “I just need a way out of my head / I’ll do anything for a way out.” This time, he’s content with staying, so he’s going to clean up while he’s there.
“I Can See”
Key lyrics: “I need somebody to save me before I drive myself crazy”
How it resonates: “I Can See” is a vast, cosmic, mirage-like song about rising, falling, and figuring out what’s real and fake. Miller contemplates calling for help as he comes to the realization that life is really “just a dream.”
Key lyrics: “Sometimes the going gets so good / But then again, it gets pretty rough”
How it resonates: Smooth and easygoing, this cover of Arthur Lee’s 1972 soulful “Everybody’s Gotta Live” soundtracks Miller’s honest look at the facts of life (and finds him playing bass). The instrumental — grounded in snares and open-ended ride cymbals — builds with piano keys and a double-layering of his voice as he cycles over the fact that we all rise, fall, and look to have a good time.
Key lyrics: “Heartbreak will you leave you bankrupt / Too many days in a day, better wake up”
How it resonates: The glowing keyboards synthesize a magical nighttime forest where Miller holds a butterfly and raps about a previous romantic relationship. He spent a lot of time putting it together and realizes that despite the effort, it takes even more energy to put it back together. You can lose all your money trying to fix a broken heart.
“Hand Me Downs”
Key lyrics: “Well just being honest, my conscious ain’t doing bad / Because I tried to minus the problems that I attract”
How it resonates: Featuring Australian rapper Baro, “Hand Me Downs” is Miller’s most open look at coping. He explains that he’s been doing better since he’s realized the grander scope of his life. It’s more open and bare on the instrumental end, enabling Miller to lead with a pensive and thoughtful note to someone special, thanking them for their love.
“That’s on Me”
Key lyrics: “And I don’t know where I have been lately but I been alright / I said good morning this morning and I’ll say goodnight”
How it resonates: The beautiful pianos and synths play up the melancholy nature of Miller’s message that a relationship is over, and it’s OK. He takes full responsibility on the chorus (“That’s on me, that’s on me, I know”) and later promises to cut the strings. And speaking of strings, Miller plays guitar on this track.
Key lyrics: “There’s no reason to be so down / I’d rather fly around like it’s no ground”
How it resonates: With his chin to the sky, Miller is realizing that he’s going to be just fine. He wants to make sure that listeners know that they, too, can overcome what they’re going through. When he asks, “Why don’t you wake up from your bad dreams?,” it’s like a call to action.
Key lyrics: “Sometimes I get lonely, not when I’m alone / But it’s more when I’m standing in crowds that I feel lost on my own”
How it resonates: “Surf” is the product of a wounded man and a guitar that eventually evolves into a diary entry with just a few backing drums. Miller wanders on, through a startling synth, singing about simply not knowing. “Before it’s all over, I promise we’ll figure it out,” he coos.
“Once a Day”
Key lyrics: “Don’t keep it all in your head / The only place that you know nobody ever can see”
How it resonates: Miller’s soft closing song — one of three songs he has sole writing credit on (along with “Circles” and “That’s on Me”) is a powerful exit. He lets the listener know, over a smooth, echoing flurry of notes, not to make the same mistake that he has: not to stay inside your head, because you’ll get lost in the mess. Mac might’ve envisioned himself swimming in circles, but “Once a Day” offers a compelling and heartfelt ending — a final grace note of optimism.