Faces in Retrospect: The Beginning of the End
I don’t refresh my Twitter homepage obsessively. My notifications are off and I browse my feed every so often. Once I’ve scrolled down back into familiar territory, I wait about half a day before checking in again. By then, the trend's been reset and I find myself caught in a crossfire of new information. That way, I’m not constantly receiving alerts about things that don’t concern me — I can read about celebrities if and when I want.
On September 7, 2018, my cellular activity did not follow its usual pattern.
Around lunchtime, my phone started to blow up such that I had to remind myself my birthday was still a week away. My closest friends were texting me saying the same thing: “Mac Miller just died.” I instantly clogged up, but another, quieter part of me thought, “finally.” As fans, we could no longer disguise his situation with euphemisms like “he always seems lit;” the time had finally come to recognize that we had been feeding off an artist’s disintegration for the past decade. I didn’t even need to clarify that it was a drug overdose.
I was with my family at the time, and since they didn’t even know who Miller was, I went to the garage and sat inside my dad's car. His final album, “Swimming,” had been released a little over a month before, which had given me enough time to overplay it, but I put it on again anyway. There’s a line in the opening song — “I was drowning but now I’m swimming” — that had felt hopeful up until then. From that day on, I realized, there would be a “before” and “after” milestone in the Mac Miller timeline.
When something terrible happens, I try my best to understand why it got that way. I shut Spotify and opened YouTube because I needed to go back to the beginning of the end. Miller’s 2014 mixtape, Faces, is rarely mentioned in conversations about his best work because it was never released commercially. It has been absent from his official timeline till now, which is why even a lot of his fans initially missed it. On October 15, Faces will finally be released on all streaming platforms and vinyl.
This is an important body of work because it marked the onset of a corporeal decline that elevated his artistic spirit. It came within a year of Watching Movies with the Sound Off, an album that marked a shift in his style but still had elements of the young, playful Miller. Both releases have a significance similar to Rubber Soul and Revolver in the Beatles discography — the prior merged the pop-driven sound of the fab four with the promise of 60s psychedelia whereas the latter fulfilled that promise and made it clear that things would never go back to the way they were. Faces cemented Miller’s transition from frat-rap star to scruffy wonder boy beaten up by the human experience.
A dark garage felt like the right place to put on this mixtape. I was familiar with the opening line but it felt like I was listening to it for the first time — “Should’ve died already.” It felt strange to tear up at something I had previously been apathetic to. I had never bothered looking past Miller’s signature smile despite the transparency with which he detailed his struggles with drugs, depression and suicide.
On the track “Malibu,” he says, “I’m the only suicidal motherfucker with a smile on.” The fact that he didn't hide his troubles made me very uncomfortable. I chose to believe he had everything under control since he was so bold as to acknowledge what a mess he was. As fans, we made the conscious decision to ignore that we were witnessing a slow death on record. Miller’s poor condition and mental health were rarely discussed in the hip-hop community during his lifetime because we’re fixated on what “alright” looks like. Even though he wasn’t alright for so long, he radiated positivity, which, in hindsight, ended up working against him.
I couldn’t even make it halfway through the mixtape, so I left my sadness in the car and walked back to my family gathering. No one could tell that I was hurting on the inside, which was good because I don’t like my sadness rubbing off on others. Sound familiar?
“Just always had a smile on his face,” Kendrick Lamar said about Miller a few days after his death. “And that’s something that I commend … no matter what he was going through, he didn’t make you feel sorry for him.”
I met up with some friends the following day — the same ones I’d freestyle over the “Diablo” instrumental with in college — and we talked about how oblivious we had been to Miller’s failed attempts at staying afloat. Destructive love, dejection, death and ascending to heaven — it was all there in his lyrics, scattered over the twenty-four tracks that constitute the 2014 mixtape. Subsequent albums also featured these themes, but Faces was Miller at his best and his worst.
“I was not on planet earth when I made Faces. Nowhere close,” he tweeted the same year it was released. The music that came from him being in such a dark space served us well because we never took it as personally as we should have. A 22-year-old boy was pouring his heart into his music and I just thought he was being edgy.
When I resumed listening to Faces, I had to once again hit pause when I heard the line, “I might die before I detox.” It became clear to me that from 2014 onward, he began designing his music for an unexpected exit. Miller’s self-awareness was painfully prophetic, and it hurts to think that his death wasn’t a surprise after all. I had convinced myself that it was, but he knew he was going to die just as well as we did because he repeatedly told us … he didn’t hint at it, he told us.
Faces is an early entry in a catalogue that evolved rapidly in a short span of time and culminated in an abrupt end at its peak. Different uploads of it have lurked around YouTube for the past seven years, constantly being taken down and put back up again, but always ripe with comments about the part it played in helping fans mature. For me, it ranges from being the backdrop of a period of unproductive sadness to the soundtrack of a vibrant phase of recovering from the worst depressive slump of my life. Today, it symbolized my growth and reminds me of how far I’ve come. For us, fans of “K.I.D.S” since we were kids, it’s a painful experience because such stark traces of Miller’s signaled death will live on as some of his greatest work.
Miller was a terrible influence because of the recklessness with which he used drugs but also a positive one because he made being in love cool and desirable (a task most artists fail at miserably). My proudest moment as his fan came with the flood of text messages I received following his death (approximately four times the birthday wishes I received a few days later). It made people think of me because I always made it a point to share his art (as I continue to today). My relationship with his music felt like a relationship with him, which is why I still get emotional every now and then when I remember he’s no longer with us … because the music will always be here, but his absence has left a gaping hole in me even though we never met in real life.
Because Faces will hit streaming platforms soon, a lot of people will listen to it for the first time and I’ll get to pretend like Miller just dropped another album. The “after” phase of his timeline will continue as his music lives on. A comment under one of his YouTube music videos (arguably one of the most positive spaces on the internet) sums it up perfectly: “‘I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.’ So I guess Mac will live forever then, good to know.”