NPR Music’s YouTube channel is a grab-bag which never fails to delight. The diversity of acts welcomed onto Tiny Desk HQ’s cramped yet hallowed stage is apparent via even a cursory scroll through their upload history—up-and-coming bands such as Camp Cope and Naia Izumi join the venerable ranks of St. Vincent, T-Pain, and The Cranberries. So long as you abide by NPR’s ruling principle of exceptional musicianship, you stand a chance of a being graced with a golden ticket to perform (no kidding: they run an annual competition, encouraging fledgling artists of all stripes to submit video entries, vying for one much-envied slot on the series). Mac Miller unwittingly captures precisely NPR’s ethos when, mid-way his own Tiny Desk concert, he mimics, impishly, “Music is a beautiful thing” – a glimmer of his irrepressibly “boisterous demeanour”, as NPR’s Bobby Carter puts it in the video’s description. But don’t let his roguishness fool you—for here, we are privy to an arrestingly mature performance. Retaining the wistful lyricism which permeates his recent release, Swimming, Miller creates a robust scaffold for his vanguard of distinguished band-members, whose sultry rhythms groove and sway around the rapper’s unmistakably stoic voice.
Stoic, but not invulnerable. The sober awkwardness between songs (“I think I’m supposed to talk in-between, but…”) is a reminder that Mac’s latest release is an intensely personal, introspective work—the product of a recent, though apparently amicable, split with former girlfriend Ariana Grande, his battle with various personal demons (addiction, the pitfalls of fame, a recent court charge for drink driving), and a palpable commitment to personal growth. Soul-searching is, by its very nature, an uncomfortable process, and so it seems only fair to expect an artist’s unease as whatever is wrenched from the depths is laid bare for all to hear. Yet thankfully, once the music begins, Mac is in his element. All vestiges of discomfort dissolve with the first, fluid bass lick of ‘What’s the Use’, and from here, Miller’s immersion in the music is total, his body rocking to the intricate riffs which flow, effortlessly as water, from the fingers of frequent-collaborator Thundercat (who, incidentally, has a mesmerising Tiny Desk set of his own). With the help of NPR’s always-impeccable audio production, Mac’s band sounds crisp and balanced enough to rival any studio recording. This is not to detract from the cohesive ease of the players themselves, who, with gleeful self-recognition (see 7.45-8.00), demonstrate the kind of intuitive musicianship which would befit a chamber-orchestra. And so, it seems only fitting that for the final, melancholic number, ‘2009’, the band is joined by a string quartet, whose searing strings tremble beneath Mac’s introspective ruminations. (As I don’t doubt live audiences would agree, it’s almost imponderable that the arrangement was first rehearsed with strings a mere twenty minutes prior to performance.) This final number is a far cry from the hubristic, androgen-crazed Miller who takes centre-stage in his 2015 release, ‘GO:DA AM’ (the track-listing tells you all you need to know, with illustrative titles such as ‘Break the Law’ and ‘When in Rome’); in its tenderness of both sentiment and sound, this final piece is reminiscent more of Eminem’s ‘Mockingbird’ or milo’s ‘note to mrs.’ than it is of almost anything to be found in Miller’s back-catalogue—a testament to the rapper’s musical virtuosity and ear for innovation, as much as his newfound personal maturity.
This performance is at once a reflection and a reworking of the tracks as they appear on Miller’s latest release, and marks a definitive point in Mac’s development as a musician; he’s still delightfully immodest, as per his trademark – just a little more reflective, and a little less uninhibited. Perhaps encouraged by his phalanx of prodigious band-members, Mac, in this performance, creates a ‘Small World’ which gives forth a massively impressive sound.
Mac Miller’s latest album, Swimming, was released August 3rd, 2018.
-- Rowena Gutsell, September 3, 2018