Everything but the Song: ‘Circles’ is how you release an album posthumously

Photo courtesy of Warner Records

There is no right answer for releasing posthumous music — a sentiment expressed by the family of rapper Mac Miller who died in 2018 from an accidental overdose. But his latest and possibly final album might be the blueprint for bringing music to life after death. 

Outside countless legal and ethical issues that could arise, seemingly most important is how authentic the music is to the artist. Easily, the Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous “Life After Death” comes to mind. The continuation of his debut “Ready to Die” had finished baking. There was little guessing as to his vision for the songs, and in turn, Bad Boy churned out a hip-hop classic.

In more recent times, we’ve seen the late rapper XXXTentacion attend his own funeral in the posthumous music video for his song “Sad!” and the BMW that X was last seen alive in was on display at an official album release event. 

With “Sad!” he became the first act to earn a posthumous Hot 100 No. 1 single as a lead artist since B.I.G’s “Mo Money Mo Problems.” Still, the rollout of his music has been painted as distasteful, given his untimely death at age 20 in 2018 after being shot and killed in a robbery. 

Despite the critics, the music grappled with themes of death and self-reflection, which populated his work before his passing. Arguably the music released hasn’t strayed from the trajectory of his career.

Mac Miller’s Jan. 17 release isn’t one for critics to rip apart for inconsistencies or for fans to be disappointed with. There’s no question the vocals are his, unlike tracks on Michael Jackson’s 2010 release, “Michael,” or issues as to whether or not he wanted the music to come to light. “Circles” is a blessing, not only because it sits as another gem in the rapper’s discography but because it existed under the perfect set of conditions for a release. 

According to his family, this posthumous project was “well into the process of recording” at the time of Miller’s death. In a statement released on the late rapper’s Instagram account, his family described Friday’s release and his previous album ‘Swimming” as “two different styles complementing each other, completing a circle — Swimming in Circles was the concept.”

With consideration of the project’s history, it is no wonder it’s not only characteristic of his discography but the perfect next step. Hip-hop grew up with Mac Miller, seeing him go from cheeky but smart bars (think his early mixtape “K.I.D.S.”) to jazz-influenced production habitual of an artist several years his senior; “Circles” continues that narrative. 

Producer Jon Brion, who worked on “Circles” before Miller’s death, was tasked with the most difficult of responsibilities; doing justice to Mac Miller’s discography. Even though it was already in production, how does one use old lyrics to fit the context and stylings of today’s music? How do you successfully add value to an artist’s existing bodies of work? Posthumous music can be a nightmare to anyone involved because the legacy of the dead ultimately rests on their shoulders. 

Despite the seemingly insurmountable task, Jon Brion completed the album gloriously. “Circles” doesn’t try to fit a blueprint for what music in 2020 should sound like — it just sounds like Mac Miller. It exists in no time period, no “era” of rap but is situated somewhere in his evolution as an artist. Ultimately, “Circles” is where he was as an artist at the time of his death. And with the quality of work at hand, there is no guessing Mac had many years ahead of him. 

The album is almost eerie, not only because it sounds as if Miller was in the studio for the final mixing and mastering but because of continued conversations on uncertainty heard in his previous releases. 

“The Devine Feminine”’s “Stay” touches on uncertainty in his relationships similar to “Circles”’ single “Good News,” where he raps “there’s a whole lot more for me waiting on the other side.” During the 48 minutes it plays, we’re gifted with what sounds like a song in 12 parts; or better yet, an end credit song in a blockbuster movie about the prolific rapper. 

Aside from the lyrical content and on-brand production, the cautious rollout of “Circles” cannot go unmentioned. His family, label and collaborators didn’t flirt with the media. There was silence leading up to the release of the first single “Good News” and then the full album “Circles.” 

Just as B.I.G.’s death didn’t stop him from being regarded as one of the greatest rappers, Miller’s death didn’t halt a legacy of uniquely profound and personal music. “Circles,” although a bittersweet listening experience, is everything we’d expect from a Mac Miller album. 

He raps on the track “Blue World:” “F*ck the bullsh*t, I’m here to make it all better, “with a little music for you.” And that he did.