“Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes and goes. Look at yourself in a mirror all your life and you’ll see Death at work, like bees in a hive of glass.” The 1950 French film Orpheus portrayed the mirror as the place to watch death’s course; perhaps a less macabre interpretation is of the mirror as a lifelong place struggle with self. The mirror is the battleground where the whole of life is laid bare, where only the stream-like thoughts of the mind can provide an explanation. Mac Miller’s Faces, recently released on Spotify 7 years after it was released as a mixtape, was his boldest exploration of the self. In the 20 song journey, he held a mirror up to himself and let his fanbase into his struggles with his own reflection, which revealed drug addictions, isolation, and numbing riches. The album speaks to anyone who has looked in the mirror and found the bitter sweetness of lost innocence. In three parts, Mac shows the cost of realized dreams, searches his reality for meaning, ultimately accepts the strange sweetness of wisdom at the expense of innocence.
Mixtape music a decade ago was a different world. You’d have to listen on SoundCloud or DatPiff. They lived in a different spot on your phone and consciousness — mixtapes only got ranked against each other. In 2014, it was Acid Rap, Flatbush Zombies BetterOffDead, and Childish Gambino’s Kauai. Kanye kicked off the summer in rap when he locked himself in a Paris Penthouse for 2 weeks to write the entirety of his new album, which also doubled as his new alter-ego, Yeezus. In the fall, during the heyday of TDE, ScHoolboy Q’s Oxymoron and Isiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo, and Chance’s Acid Rap owned the cassette tape-to aux speakers. I was a high-school senior and the fall was the most worry-free time I can remember. Ambitious students had to make sure their grades were strong for mid-year transcripts — but state school kids were in the clear. We shamelessly established an informal but robust cheating system. I did physics for $10 and got help with computer science by over-achieving juniors. Nothing offensive, just enough to stay afloat and enjoy the party senior year. Mac Miller debuted Faces that spring and shut the party down. He ditched his care-free rapping on the project with a Guernica-styled cover over an unsettling yellow backdrop.
With Mac, rap turned inward and took stock of reflections. He studied the famous faces of his new friends, the face of his lover, and his own face in the mirror — what had fame brought him, and was it what he wanted?
Part One — “Shit is changed ain’t little Malcolm with the baby face”
The horns opening to the mixtape set stage for Mac’s lazy flow. A hotel lobby styled instrumental for a reintroduction to his fans. “But on the inside, I’m on the outside all the time.” Maybe Mac didn’t feel at home in his own self, or he lamented at being too famous to maintain an intimate life. The first act of the project peels back the curtain into Mac’s vices like a contemporary Kurt Cobain. “Spent all my cash on a broken dream, went from weed and liquor to the coke and lean. All I got’s this mansion was some potpourri.” Faces confronts a dream that went sideways. He wasn’t ready for the escalation to hard drugs, isolating fame, and riches that he could only laugh at — they did nothing but make him look handsome in his jeans. If the project is a look in the mirror, the opening was a confrontation of who he had become. Just two albums earlier, he was a festival-rapper who had come to fame sounding like he rapped through a mouthful of peanut butter. Like any coming of age, the first glance in the mirror was a confrontation of the departed self.
Part Two — “I told him I’m losin’ my grip. He told me ‘son if you want to hold onto yourself then let yourself slip’”
In the second act of the album, Mac searched his new life for any remains of meaning. The songs “Happy Birthday”, “Wedding”, and “Funeral” were a search on this world, and “Diablo” and “Ave Maria” looked to the afterlife, grasping for a place to belong. “Happy Birthday”, “Wedding”, and “Funeral” contrast a sing-song chorus’ with lyrics of lament over his broken relationships — “Spending this time pretendin’ it was that first summer, we was pure lovers. She was used to bein’ hurt, I took that curse from her.” His voice resigned through the three-song movement which ended with Mac writing his own funeral song. In “Diablo”, Mac’s devil-alter-ego presented bravado. Over a chopped and screwed piano beat and slick saxophone, Mac put together his best bars from the cool fires of hell. “Ave Maria” is a journey to the other side. Heaven was described as the centrality of fame, with Mac swimming at the center but going nowhere. He saw paradise as happiness all around him that he could neither access nor disrupt. “Center stage but the merry go round… Eat drink and let the merry go round,” he signed off the song with the acceptance that heaven’s pleasures were not for him. After this journey through the Heavens and Earth, “Colors and Shapes”, the thesis song, is where Mac finally found his place. The song is a prophetic story of Mac sinking to the bottom of an ocean and finding a captain who prefers to sink. The captain instructs Mac, “Son if you want to hold on to yourself. Fall. It feels good to fall.” For the first time, Mac seemed to belong. During this trip, Mac accepted his love of vertigo. He couldn’t belong in Heaven because he felt trapped. In Hell, he was at the bottom of everything. But somewhere in the middle, he could just fall.
Part Three — Let us have a grand finale, the world will be just fine without me
The finale of the tape features a Mac transformed, with a new understanding of his love of falling. He signed off the album with an acceptance of this. “Insomniak” boasts his love of the drugs and insomnia that he once looked at with regret. He rejoined the party with the knowledge that his demons brought him the vertiginous feeling he needed. The best features come on the back of the album. Rick Ross, Vince Staples, and 2014 Earl Sweatshirt (an Earl who would put 32 bars on a song!!!) helped new Mac find community in this new place. In the finale, he finally sounded comfortable with his new face and the new faces surrounding him. In “New Faces v2”, he and Earl looked back to ’09 with love for before their fame. Mac closed out the album with love for his entire journey. He looked at his blunt sprinkled with Coke, asking, almost with resigned humor, “Shit was supposed to get me high why the fuck I wanna die,” made a Hail Mary, and acknowledged his last breath could come at any moment.