For music artists, maturation both sonically and lyrically is pivotal to remaining an established force within the industry. With Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller, his latest studio album “Swimming” serves as an intimate look into his current headspace. While this introspective take is a welcome one and the bevy of mellowing instrumentals are delightful, Miller’s latest project feels like a retread through his usual strengths and weaknesses that does not quite take him to the next level.
“Swimming” is Miller’s fifth studio album, and the third under the Warner Bros. Records. Most might associate Miller with his initial breakthrough as the flamboyant, effervescent party boy seen in some of his chart-topping singles, like “Donald Trump” and “Loud.” This view of the artist comes from his first album, “Blue Slide Park” that was released back in 2011. Today, Miller’s discography is anything but loud.
“Swimming” is an album that fancies a more discrete, lukewarm approach. There is an emphasis on moody and spacey beats with songs like “Perfecto” and “Wings.” The album also drifts into more funky, almost disco-like territory with the songs “Ladders?” and “What’s the Use?,” the former being one of the highlights on the entire album.
Many of the things Miller raps about on the album stem from some of the recent issues he faced in his personal life, including his DUI arrest back in May and widely-covered breakup with pop star Ariana Grande. When it comes to the latter, listeners should not expect the same kind of heartache or vengeful spew of commentary that has been so prominent lately in hip-hop. Instead, Miller is far more philosophical with the intention to explore his feelings and mindset. In songs like “Hurt Feelings,” a track produced by rapper J. Cole, Miller authentically opens up about his regret in being so careless to be charged with a DUI.
What is so interesting about “Swimming” is how, despite its subject matter, Miller never seems to be overly distraught. There is self-deprecation but never a sense of real atrophy or depression. There is certainly some inner turmoil but never a real war against oneself. On the surface, some might view this as an apathetic approach, but it hardly is. Miller refrains from exacerbating any of his issues and instead chooses to slowly figure them out, which is perhaps best summed up by the album’s title. He is not drowning, just floating along through the many rivers life has to offer.
While “Swimming” mostly succeeds in being a soft, therapeutic collection of tracks, many of the shortcomings of Miller’s previous work seem to rear their ugly heads. While Miller’s lyricism is largely consistent and sharp, the vocal production itself can come off as screechy rather than soothing. The song “Self Care” is one of the primary offenders and it somewhat ruins what is an otherwise great song because of the elongated bridge that can be heard between the chorus and verses.
Another example of this is the song “Small Worlds” which has a splendid sense of goofiness that is overshadowed by a rather moaning vocal delivery. The song “2009,” in spite of its outright beautiful and harmonious instrumental, is tragically hindered by the inconsistent singing throughout its runtime. This issue is not a complete deal breaker, but it prevents Miller from being more snappy and focused. It makes a lot of the album sound more monotonous and woozier than it should be.
Miller gives perhaps his most mature and grounded musical release yet with “Swimming,” and fans of the rapper should find much of it to be desirable. The vocal production and lack of focus stymie much of the potential growth that Miller could have made, but the result is still solid enough to warrant listening to. It is an album that does not fit the typical aesthetic often associated with the hip-hop genre. It feels more like a gentle listen reserved for those days that are not strictly good or bad but rather just decent, like an early commute back home on a rainy day.