A lyrical genius, talented multi-instrumentalist and whiz in the studio, Mac Miller was poised for hip hop greatness. But his fame and career were tragically short-lived.
On September 7, Miller, was found dead in his California home. He was only 26. The hip hop world reeled, fans mourned, and heartfelt tributes to the young rapper from Pittsburgh poured in.
Miller, born Malcolm James McCormick, was known for bringing sounds from all corners of music into his brand of hip hop. Blue-eyed soul, funk, trap, frat rap and even jazz fusion would creep into his five studio albums, 11 mixtapes and innumerable production credits, inspiring the likes of Chance the Rapper, Vince Staples and Lil Yachty.
To honor his legacy, we picked out eight of our favorite tunes from the rap star’s discography.
“Party on Fifth Ave” from Blue Slide Park (2011)
Blue Slide Park, the breakthrough that put Miller on the map, is no doubt dear to Pittsburgh rap fans. The 2011 album—which, at the time, was the first independently distributed debut album to top the US Billboard Hot 200 in 16 years—wears its hometown pride on its sleeve with hat-tip song titles (“PA Nights,” “Frick Park Market”) and shoutouts to beloved haunts.
Many of us were introduced to Miller through the album’s rambunctious single, “Party on Fifth Ave.” An ode to the titular street in the Steel City, the song’s holler-ready hook “There’s a party on Fifth Ave / Hit me if you tryna go” established Miller as a fun-loving frat rapper slash party animal.
Though Miller would evolve beyond that, “Party on Fifth Ave” still occupies a special place in the city’s heart. A petition has even been started to campaign the Pittsburgh Penguins to make it their goal song.
“Best Day Ever” from Best Day Ever (2011)
A few months before Blue Slide Park, Miller released Best Day Ever. The mixtape catapulted the rapper towards mainstream success and ignited a bizarre feud with the to-be president of the United States—all thanks to the one song, “Donald Trump.”
That song, however, overshadows other gems on the mixtape.
The title track opens the record perfectly, introducing the laid-back vibe that permeates throughout. It’s a playful tune that radiates positivity from the get-go, where a relaxed Miller delivered his smooth flow over the sparkly synth arrangement.
The rapper told the world he was finally content, assuring the listener that no matter where he was at, he would be wearing a smile: “I never thought life would be this sweet / It got me cheesin’ from cheek to cheek.”
“Love Affair” from You (2012)
From Delusional Thomas to his producer persona Larry Fisherman, Miller had plenty of alter egos. But of all his aliases, there was one that stood out: Larry Lovestein and The Velvet Revival, the most enigmatic and least brutish of the lot.
As Lovestein, Miller got in touch with his sensual side, swapping his swaggering frat rap for romantic jazz. Take a listen to “Love Affair,” off his 2012 EP You, his only record as Lovestein. On it, Miller glammed up like a sleek lounge singer from a bygone era as he crooned about falling in love.
“Objects in the Mirror” from Watching Movies with the Sound Off (2013)
Watching Movies with the Sound Off, Miller’s ambitious second album, arrived in 2013 as a marker of the rapper’s artistic maturity. The expansion of his sonic palette was nowhere more evident than on “Objects in the Mirror,” a somber, Pharrell-produced track on which Miller sang rather than rapped.
“Objects in the Mirror” was an opportunity for Miller to show his introspective side. He brooded over heartbreak, how people change, depression and suicide (“Your life precious, ain’t no need to go and kill yourself / I’m not so sure that there’s an end at all / I wish the truth would just reveal itself”). Miller’s increasing willingness to bare his troubled soul on record as the years went by was, undeniably, what made him special.
But the live rendition of the track on what Miller dubbed the “Space Migration Sessions,” backed by The Internet, is the definitive version of the tune. The self-restraint of the original was nowhere to be found. Instead, the rapper unleashed an impassioned take that let the cracks in his voice—and his humanity—show.
“New Faces” from Faces (2014)
Miller was a prolific musician by all counts. Not only did he release five studio albums, he had 11 mixtapes to his name—and the last one, Faces, stands out.
Faces is a star-studded release, bearing the fingerprints of Thundercat, Schoolboy Q, and Rick Ross, among others. But what made the difference, and what endeared Miller to his peers in hip hop, was that he counted these musicians not just as collaborators but as friends.
The chemistry of friendship made the mixtape’s penultimate song, “New Faces,” a fan favorite: It’s easy to imagine Miller and his guests Dash and Earl Sweatshirt in the studio, egging each other on to ever greater lyrical heights, towards the dense, top-notch bars of the final cut.
“Perfect Circle/God Speed” from GO:OD AM (2015)
Here’s where Miller’s songwriting finally came into its own. While Blue Slide Park is often insufferable and Watching Movies with the Sound Off proved he had potential but lacked tenacity, the rapper found his footing on GO:OD AM.
The 17-track album, released in 2015 after a two-year hiatus, gave listeners a deeper look into Miller’s long-term struggle with depression and addiction. Although he was never one to shy away from the subjects, Miller’s earlier records either skated quickly past them or lightened the mood with dark humor.
On GO:OD AM, however, he confronted his demons head-on, particularly on “Perfect Circle/God Speed,” an eight-minute-long standout produced by Frank Dukes. The moody, Americana-tinged track is cleaved into two: Miller rapped about his ennui on the first part, and spiraled further into depression on the second.
The song is an even more chilling listen now when you realize the rapper might have foreshadowed his own demise in his bars: “Them pills that I’m popping, I gotta man up / Admit it’s a problem, I need to wake up / Before one morning I don’t wake up.”
“Dang!” featuring Anderson Paak from The Divine Feminine (2016)
Following in the footsteps of its predecessors, The Divine Feminine, too, is peppered with cameos by Miller’s musical peers, such as Ty Dolla $ign, Kendrick Lamar and CeeLo Green, as well as then-muse Ariana Grande.
But out of the list of collaborations, the partnership with Anderson Paak on the bopping “Dang!” was the most memorable. Paak brings his signature suave to a woozy concoction of jazz and funk, which could’ve easily been plucked from the Cali musician’s Grammy-nominated album, Malibu.
The track’s driven by a thumping bassline that recalls Kaytranada’s “You’re the One” and Pomo’s remix of the Hall & Oates classic, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” So it comes as no surprise that Pomo actually had a hand in the production of “Dang!”
“Self Care” from Swimming (2018)
Morbid headlines in the wake of Miller’s death fixated on the portentous music video for “Self Care,” one of his last. It depicted the rapper in a coffin, etching the Latin phrase “memento mori” (“remember you must die”) into the wood.
It’s unfair that these obsessive interpretations should mar the legacy of the standout track off Miller’s last album, Swimming. From his moody yet versatile delivery, to the cloudy production, to the song’s vulnerable second act—as far as singles go, there’s no better testament to how far Miller had come as an MC and musician. Rest in peace, Mac.
Listen to his discography on Spotify.