On September 7, 2018, just a month after the release of his critically acclaimed fifth album, Swimming, Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller died from an accidental drug overdose. His struggles were no secret, but there was a glimmer of hope on Swimming that hinted that better days might be around the corner. While those possibilities were unfortunately lost with his passing, Miller did manage to record extra material that ended up on the posthumous set Circles. Intended as a companion piece to Swimming (i.e. "swimming in circles"), the album was completed by producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West), who maintained the laid-back vibe and introspective mood of its predecessor. Subdued and reflective, the beats hit softer and the reliance on piano and Brion's quirky production choices make for a lush, comforting listen. With the bittersweet benefit of hindsight, the album's lyrics shed some light on Miller's state of mind at the time of his death, providing clear signs that the rapper was in need of more help and support. For fans, Circles will be a tough listen, as Brion's often-playful musical backing belies the sadness and resolve in Miller's voice. On "Complicated," he languidly raps that he's "way too young to be gettin' old" atop shiny synths, later wondering "Why does everyone need me to stay?" on the frustrated "Good News." On "Surf," he makes it even clearer, deciding he's "gotta get going before I'm gone." Even when he's singing someone else's material, as on "Everybody," a cover of Arthur Lee's 1972 song, he manages to make the original lyrics sound even more dour, concluding that "Everybody's gotta live/Everybody's gonna die." If Miller hadn't passed, Circles would be an insightful, focused addition to his strong late-era catalog, shining a necessary light on emotional and mental health struggles and sobriety through his deeply reflective lyrics and the wonderfully enjoyable and warm production work by Brion. Instead, it's yet another reminder of lost potential and a life cut tragically short.
AllMusic Review by Neil Z. Yeung