The problem with Pittsburgh-born, 21-year-old rapping white boy Mac Miller isn't that he's bad. It's that he isn't very good, and we're now treating him like he's great.
To this point, Miller's career hinges on right-place, right-time fortuity, combined with an ability and willingness to genuflect before his core fan base. For most, he arrived less than three years ago, in the midst of a flashpoint where blog-fueled hip-hop pushed major label rap further into irrelevance. Fellow Pittsburgh weed rap twerp Wiz Khalifa—a major contributor to the varied, DIY Internet rap scene—broke through to the mainstream, selling out amphitheaters and climbing charts internationally. Miller swerved into and stuck with Wiz's cargo shorts-appealing lane, and he found his own throng.
Miller expertly re-enacts all the core elements of "real" hip-hop: His hooks are chanted rather than handed over to a good and proper singer. His beats hit hard but feel third-spliff-of-the-day breezy. He indulges a strained "whoa, man" delivery that suggests he's stunned by his own ability to rap. Like Drake, he pairs it all with an approach to rhyming that's certainly rudimentary but smartly rides close enough to the beat that it tricks new listeners into thinking he's totally killing it.
On the aspirational "Donald Trump," from 2011's free download mixtape Best Day Ever, Miller layers skittering drums over gulps and squeaks of wordless vocals. He tosses out in-the-pocket, middle-class, dude-bro boasting and sounds like the best rapper on your college dorm floor: "I just want to ride through the city in a Cutlass/ Find a big butt bitch somewhere, get my nuts kissed/ That's the way it goes when you party just like I do/ Bitches on my dick that used to brush me off in high school." Imagine the privileged, raised-on-porn prick kids of Superbad if they really liked Big L. Why wouldn't the young and dumb rock this?
They did: Blue Slide Park, Miller's 2011 debut album, sold 144,000 copies in one week and became the first independently distributed debut to top The Billboard 200 since 1995. He had stayed with the Pittsburgh-based label Rostrum and, as a result, was relatively free to do as he wished, giving his debut a rare sort of integrity in top-selling hip-hop. If the past is any indication, a major label would've cleaned up this locally grown oval-faced goof, delayed his album a half-dozen times, and made him rap over dubstep. His independent insistence paid off.
Last month, Miller released Watching Movies With the Sound Off, the follow-up to Blue Slide Park. He again stuck with Rostrum, but stylistically, Miller attempts something much more ambitious for his second LP. He augments his gee-golly persona with an abstract "lyrical" style of rapping, plus weightless and horizontal production to match. The main influence here is the freely associative, hot-sounding nonsense of hip-hop absurdist MF Doom. On "Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes," Miller offers, "Young sire, slap the fuck out of Jon Cryer, rough rider." The guests are high-profile products of Internet rap: Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt, Black Hippy bug-out extraordinaire Ab-Soul, eccentric street tough Action Bronson, underground recluse Jay Electronica—friends who let Miller borrow their bona fides. Sometimes, Miller even sings in a pouty voice that indicates his life is getting tough and he's been thinking real hard about it. He's a post-grad now.
Watching Movies With the Sound Off is not a bad album. Miller, undoubtedly a serious rap fan, knows how to make a "solid" and "cohesive" album because he's listened to a lot of those in his 21 years on this planet. He begins with a mood-setting druggy yammer, locates an emotional apogee with a song about a dead friend, and wraps it all with a singsong track that could play over the final credits of the next Zach Braff movie. It doesn't do much that's quantifiably wrong.
But that's why the narrative that's forming is so ridiculous: Mac Miller is now pretty good at rapping, and his former doubters are now starting to treat him like a young god. If this were high school basketball, he'd be the kid who goes from missing the rim of a free throw at season's beginning to making a few open-court layups in the playoffs—except he's also talking now about skipping college and heading straight to the pros. Pitchfork, who gave Blue Slide Park a 1.0 out of 10, afforded Watching Movies With the Sound Off a pretty respectable 7.0 and sold the idea that Miller's addiction to codeine-laced cough syrup and public bouts with billionaire troll Donald Trump fueled a dark-night-of-the-soul rap album. The New York Times' Jon Caramanica lightly praised the record, claiming this not-even-a-couplet offered a "bolt of emotional clarity": "I still don't got the heart to pick my phone up when my dad calls/ Will he recognize his son when he hears my voice?" Apparently, it is now enough to make a moderately enjoyable, not entirely embarrassing rap album of underground mimesis and pass muster into the mainstream.
Here is an edgier and less shameless Macklemore, a frat-friendly facsimile of paranoid, third-eye-opening hip-hop. Mac Miller gives people exactly what they want and, this time around, it is the illusion of sophistication. That doesn't mean he, nor anyone else, should be celebrated for not being completely terrible anymore.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Getting mediocre."