Mac Miller puts the party on pause in mature second album
July 11, 2013 4:00 AM
Mac Miller on his new album, "Watching Movies With the Sound Off": "I just wanted all the pieces to make sense for the album more than trying to make a song for the radio."
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
You've probably never had this situation come up, but let's say you wanted to enlist someone to do a diss track on your hip-hop album. A diss track of you. Would you get the Mike Tyson of battle rappers or would you go a little softer?
For "Watching Movies With the Sound Off," Mac Miller dialed up Loaded Lux, and the Harlem rap battler skewers him pretty good.
With: Chance the Rapper, Vince Staples and The Internet.
Where: Stage AE Outdoors, North Shore.
When: Gates at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Tickets: $30/$35; ticketmaster.com.
"A rap figure who liked like he hacked Twitter/I'll show you, Beastie Boy," he rhymes. "You were a bully's best day ever/with them Nikes on your feet/coming through Blue Slide Park/I'm gonna rob this chump." "I liked you better when you was Easy Mac with the cheesy raps," he finishes. "Who the [expletive] is Mac Miller?"
With that, Lux lays bare the perception of Miller as the soft white party rapper from a nice Pittsburgh neighborhood.
"Loaded Lux's return, oh, it was perfect, man," Miller says in a phone interview from a tour stop in Atlanta, "like a lot of the stuff that happened with this album. I asked him to do an a cappella dissing of me, because people always say those things to me, and it's coming from someone who's going to do it the best. And he is not only ethering me but doing with it within the storylines of the album."
"Watching Movies With the Sound Off" is Miller's first West Coast album, coming off his chart-topping party-rap debut "Blue Slide Park" and the MTV2 reality show capturing the goofy antics of his Most Dope crew in an LA hills mansion.
He got there through viral YouTube tracks like "Nikes on My Feet," "Kool-Aid and Frozen Pizza" and "Donald Trump," creating the persona of the party-crashing, weed-smoking DIY underdog -- little bro to Rostrum labelmate Wiz Khalifa with a faster flow.
"Watching Movies," though, also follows in the moody, downbeat vein of his troubled mixtape "Macadelic," made in a druggy fog of a "lean" addiction, a fading relationship and a psyche rattled by reviews like the scorching 1.0 (out of 10) in Pitchfork, which said, "... despite his claim of being a cross between John Lennon and UGK, he's mostly just a crushingly bland, more intolerable version of Wiz Khalifa without the chops, desire, or pocketbook for enjoyable singles."
"It was interesting to see how the last record was received," he says of "Blue Slide Park." "But I think a lot of things in my life kind of impacted how I approached this record, and I think that the key to it was just shutting out all outside influence and kind of just finding it within myself."
At the listening party in New York in June, the album was accompanied by a video depicting the struggle of a baby turtle in treacherous waters. Respect magazine wrote of the record, "At times, the album felt like Mac was drowning in his own thoughts, and we were watching him from slightly higher up in the endless ocean."
Miller and his crew could probably work up some radio fodder on the way to the convenience store, but that's not what he was after on "Watching Movies With the Sound Off," an album named for his habit of doing just that during all-night studio sessions.
"I kind of wanted to go without the radio approach because I wanted to make an album that you listen to from top to bottom, and whenever there's a big radio single sometimes you end up skipping to that record on the album," he says. "For me, I just wanted all the pieces to make sense for the album more than trying to make a song for the radio. I didn't want to look at this album like that."
It's a daring move away from "Easy Mac," as rap careers, outside of the few superstars, die fast in the face of a fan base itching for the next big thing. Yeah, Mac, who also plays guitar and digs jazz, indie rock and De La Soul, has always had broad tastes, but when you're 21, how are you not concerned with holding on to the wild core that packs the shows?
"When you think so much about what people want to hear from you .... I don't think it's really fair to yourself to make music like this, especially for me, because, my music, I care about so much and I'm so inside of my own music that, like, that's where I live. At this point it's hard for me to think about that because that's a limiting factor on creativity, because I think, 'What do these people want to hear?' I used to think, 'Where is my "Donald Trump?" ' ... 'Where's my this song?' I just think it limits what you're able to do when you're trying to re-create feelings in fans."
In the past, XXL mag, The Source and others have had Miller's back, but with this more free-flowing album approach -- complete with production work from Diplo, Flying Lotus, ID Labs and Larry Fisherman (Miller's alter-ego) and features by Earl Sweatshirt, Jay Electronica, Action Bronson, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul -- Miller has some bigger outlets in his camp. His metacritic score went from 58 for "Blue Slide Park" to 75 for "Watching Movies," with Rolling Stone, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly all getting on board.
This is likely the first time an artist ever went from 1.0 to 7.0 on Pitchfork, which called it "a quantum leap in artistry."
"I'm not going to lie," Miller says. "It's good to see people come around and appreciate what's going on, but the thing I like about it is that people are just listening to the album with an open mind. I really haven't been able to read as many reviews as I thought I was going to, but instead of people saying, 'Oh, he's trying to do this or he's trying to do this,' it's cool just to see people take the record as it is."
Pop Matters noted his maturation as an artist while also stopping to point out, "You could spend a week with 'Watching Movies' and pick out a handful of great-to-amazing tracks for yourself, but I still find it quite a challenge telling anyone what the songs are actually going on about."
That wasn't an issue so much on "Blue Slide Park," with fun, funky songs like "Party on Fifth Ave." and "Frick Park Market."
"I think the record is really about free thought, and it's kind of like finding your own freedom within your head," Miller says. "I think a lot of times in life we build up all the stresses and issues within our own head, and I think this record deals with turning all the sounds off and finding your own peace and putting yourself in your own little comfort zone and just talking freely and not limiting yourself."
Miller didn't have much competition when "Blue Slide Park" dropped in November 2011. Soon after announcing that "Watching Movies" would arrive June 18, major label heavies Kanye West and J. Cole announced for the same day. Rather that fabricating some reasonable excuse for a delay -- in effect, handing over his lunch money -- Miller clung to his date.
"I'm kind of like one of those weird everything-happens-for-a-reason-type people, and when Kanye came out and said he's dropping on the 18th I was like, 'This is the worst person who could drop on the same day,' because I just wanted to have my own space. But I felt like there had to be some kind of reason that Kanye was going to drop on the same day as me, so I just stuck to it."
Miller placed third in the June 18 sweepstakes but still managed to hit No. 3 on Billboard and top 100,000 in first week sales.
"I didn't even expect to sell as well as it did," he says. "That was a surprise to me. I kind it was looking at [this record] from a different perspective."
The Space Migration Tour that brings him to Stage AE Friday with Chance the Rapper, Vince Staples and The Internet (the funk group featuring Odd Future members Syd Tha Kyd and Matt Martians) will be a chance for Pittsburgh fans to see him in a new light, doing half with the DJ, and then branching out with a live band, as Khalifa also has.
"I've been able to do a little bit of everything. The band is The Internet. They're touring with me, and I asked them if they'd be part of our set. We kind of like ditched the backing tracks and made live-only versions of the songs. It's awesome."