Never a frat rapper
One week before his death, Mac Miller was happy. On August 31st, the rapper invited the bassist Thundercat — a close friend and collaborator — and his daughter, Sanaa, over to his Studio City, California, home to spend the entire day celebrating the girl’s 12th birthday. “He refused not to celebrate it with us,” Thundercat recalls with a laugh. “He was like, ‘What do I get her?’ ‘I dunno, some Gucci flip-flops?’ ” Miller treated his guests to dinner, sang “Happy Birthday” twice, and then retired to the couch, where the three friends spent the rest of the night watching Sanaa’s favorite TV shows — with Miller periodically stealing her phone and trolling her Instagram and Snapchat feed. “The happiness was there, man,” Thundercat says. “I could see it in him. And it wasn’t fake.”
It would be the last time Thundercat would see his friend alive. On September 7th, shortly before noon, police officers responded to a frantic 911 call placed by Miller’s personal assistant and longtime sober coach, who discovered Miller’s lifeless body in a bedroom in his sprawling, compound-like home moments earlier. The 26-year-old rapper — who topped the charts as an independent teenage artist and championed and befriended many of hip-hop’s biggest talents, and whose career was defined by a relentless desire to improve his craft — was pronounced dead at the scene. According to an autopsy report released by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office on November 5th, Miller died of an accidental overdose. Fentanyl, cocaine and alcohol were all present in his system. A bottle of alcohol and prescription pills were found in his home, and a powdery white substance was found on his person.
According to witness statements in the autopsy report, Miller was last seen by his assistant around 10:30 p.m. on September 6th, and spoke to his mother on the phone that night. It was only when the assistant arrived the next morning — he typically woke Miller at 11:30 a.m. — and discovered Miller’s body that anyone close to him knew anything was wrong.
Miller had long struggled with addiction. While he was attempting sobriety, he had frequent “slip-ups,” according to a statement in the autopsy report, that could be excessive. The last such incident before the night of his death, according to his assistant, had been on September 4th, just three days before his death.
Miller openly discussed his dependence on lean, a combination of codeine and promethazine. It peaked around the time he was making his 2012 mixtape, Macadelic. “He had sort of made a turn after the making of [his 2011 debut album] Blue Slide Park, where I think he got a little bit deeper into drugs and was talking about it,” says Benjy Grinberg, the founder of independent Pittsburgh record label, Rostrum Records, who signed Miller to his first record deal in 2010 and served as his de facto manager for several years afterward. “It was definitely scary. I had never been that close to somebody who had issues like that.”
But for those closest to him, Miller’s death still came as a shock. By all accounts, he was in his best mental and physical condition in years when he died. Miller had been working with his sober coach since 2016, and was working out at an L.A. gym nearly every day.
Two weeks before Miller’s death, Ty Dolla $ign, who was in the midst of working with him on a joint project, spent the day with Miller at Chalice Recording Studios in L.A. “He was in good spirits,” says Ty, who first met the rapper through the pair’s mutual friendship with Miller’s onetime Rostrum labelmate Wiz Khalifa. “He had everybody in the room dying laughing.” Miller also met Fifth Harmony member Dinah Jane for the first time that day, “and she was talking about how nice he was,” Ty remembers. “She didn’t think he was gonna be that cool, but he was supercool. I’m like, ‘Yeah, man. That’s Mac.’ “
When he learned of Miller’s passing, via text message while on tour in Tampa with G-Eazy and Lil Uzi Vert, Ty broke down. “I went outside of my bus to try to catch a breather,” he says. “I was crying. And I don’t ever cry. Nobody sees me down like that. That was the hardest day ever. The first time I cried in years.” When he heard the news, Ty quickly phoned Thundercat. “I had to tell him the news and shit. He immediately broke down. He was like, ‘The last thing he said was, “Bro, I just want to make it to tour.”
Thundercat and Miller had big plans for the rest of the year. He and Miller were set to hit the road this fall on a joint tour behind the rapper’s new album, Swimming, and, more urgently, they had plans to shoot a bold music video in mid-September for the collaborative track “What’s the Use?” A wide-ranging cast of celebrities and friends of Miller’s, from TV personality Guy Fieri to Kehlani and Mac DeMarco, were set to make cameos dancing along to the song. “He just wanted people to know how hard he’d been working,” Thundercat says. “Up until the last words we spoke to each other, it was nothing short of pure excitement.”
On a late-July afternoon this year in Manhattan, Miller met with me for one of the first interviews he would give about Swimming. It was one of the first times he’d been out in public following his highly publicized breakup with Ariana Grande, a tumultuous event made worse when, days later, Miller was arrested on charges of DUI and hit-and-run after he allegedly crashed his Mercedes SUV into a power pole near his home and fled the scene. But Miller told me that, despite tabloid headlines following his arrest that suggested he’d fallen back into his drug-abusing ways, he’d learned to be the judge of his own reality. He said he was in a good place.
“Don’t get me wrong — I record music like a f*cking meth addict,” he followed up with a laugh. “But these people online thinking I’m super-f*cked-up on drugs when I’m not. . . . That’s not the worst thing in the world. It just doesn’t seem that important to me. How are you going to expect a bunch of people who are just reading random headlines or hearing about a DUI or assuming you’re in a superdark, depressed place to form any other conclusions? I can’t expect that everyone is going to be like, ‘Nah. Malcolm, he’s a good person.’
In the weeks leading up to this death, Miller did what he always did to block out the noise: He worked on music. He was already deep in rehearsals for his upcoming tour, which was set to feature his dream band, including Thundercat. “He made me want to get on my shit,” the bassist says. “Because I could see it in him. It wasn’t him playing the game. It was him being 100 percent with it.”
“That’s the part that hurt the most,” the singer Miguel, who collaborated with Miller on “Weekend,” one of the biggest hits of their careers, says. “He had just put this incredible album out. He was ready to go on tour with one of his really close friends. There was a lot in the air. He was looking forward to something new.”
Even after Swimming’s release, on August 3rd, and some of his most positive reviews that came with it, Mac was already back at work on new music. He’d been in the studio with producer Frank Dukes, and he and Post Malone had plans to make an album together. “Mac never stopped working on music from the moment I met him up to and including the week he passed,” says his longtime producer, Eric “E. Dan” Dan. The producer first met Miller at his ID Labs Studio in Pittsburgh when the rapper was releasing self-funded mixtapes, and Dan went on to work on every one of Miller’s projects. “I don’t think you’ll find anybody that would tell you he was anything but excited to go on tour, happy to have an amazing and well-received album out and looking forward to the future.”
On August 5th, Miller performed an intimate show at L.A’s Hotel Café for a crowd of 100 or so close friends and family to celebrate his album release. The 10-song set list that night ran through the rapper’s music from the recent past and concluded with “2009,” a string-swelling track off Swimming so personal that the rapper had once felt self-conscious about including it on the LP. “Now every day I wake up and breathe/I don’t have it all, but that’s all right with me,” Miller sang before walking offstage.
Waiting for him in the wings was Benjy Grinberg, one of his earliest champions. Grinberg says he and Miller hadn’t spoken much in recent years, but “when he came offstage that night he gave me one of the nicest hugs I’ve ever received and continued on to his green room,” Grinberg says. “It was a really nice moment for me.” It was the last time he saw Miller: “Looking back, I’m happy that I at least had the chance to see him in person one more time.
“It still doesn’t feel real at all,” Grinberg adds. “I actually had a dream last night that I was at his wedding and woke up and was like, ‘Damn.’ Honestly, I still feel a bit numb.”
Long before he wanted to be a rapper, Miller, born Malcolm James McCormick to a photographer mother and an architect father, was a natural-born creative spirit. So inventive was a young Mac that his older brother Miller would compare him to the central character in the children’s show Harold and the Purple Crayon. “He’s this kid who draws his own realities,” Mac told me in July, describing the cartoon character. “I’ve always been into that kinda stuff.”
He began rapping at age 14, making a name for himself on the Pittsburgh freestyle scene first as EZ Mac, before rebranding as Mac Miller. He connected with Grinberg and Rostrum A&R man Artie Pitt — who were running the label, home to rising local star Khalifa — while he was still a teen. Grinberg and Pitt recall frequently running into Miller at E. Dan’s ID Labs. “He was a go-getter and he knew what he wanted,” Pitt recalls of a teenage Miller. “And that’s a big part of being a superstar, being able to run your own ship. He had the vision for it. I knew he was going to be that guy.”
With the release of his 2010 mixtape, K.I.D.S. (Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit), an 18-year-old Miller began attracting national attention, thanks in part to the track “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza,” which sampled the Lord Finesse song “Hip 2 Da Game.” (In 2012, Lord Finesse sued; he and Miller settled later that year.) Miller’s early raps were juvenile, but sampling a hip-hop legend like Finesse signaled to others that here was a young man with a sincere respect and curiosity for hip-hop’s storied legacy. “He could have chosen any beat he wanted,” DJ A-Trak, who’d become friendly with Miller in the ensuing years, says of “Kool Aid,” “but to choose something as dope in the hip-hop sense as Lord Finesse is such a cool first destination.”
The following year, Miller released his major-label debut, Blue Slide Park. It was a massive commercial success, the first independently distributed debut album to top the Billboard200 since Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food, in 1995. Critics universally dismissed it, though, as insipid and unoriginal hip-hop. Miller was easily slotted into a cadre of other current young white rappers, like Asher Roth and Sammy Adams, and was derided as a “frat rapper.”
“He was never a frat rapper,” Pitt argues. “The music was never frat rap. Him and I had that conversation many times.” This intense criticism, including an infamous 1.0 review for Blue Slide Park on Pitchfork, took its toll, but it eventuallly bolstered Miller’s creative ambition. He soon relocated to L.A. and, first with 2012’s Macadelic and 2013’s Watching Movies With the Sound Off, he began experimenting with inventive new sounds as well as producing his own music, often under the moniker Larry Fisherman. He also became a key fixture in the L.A. rap scene, forming friendships and collaborating with artists including Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples and Schoolboy Q, in addition to more experimental, jazz-indebted musicians like Thundercat and the psychedelic DJ-producer Flying Lotus.
“It’s awesome, man,” Miller told me in 2013. “All of us, we’re all making music together, we all enjoy each other’s music and push each other to do better. Personally, I think the most talented people in music right now are the people coming through my studio.”
That was also when the rapper began using harder drugs. Having frequently accompanied him on the road, Pitt says he harbors regret about this time in Miller’s life, and he has the sense he could have done more to help. “I was always worried about him at that time,” Pitt says. “I carry some guilt in my heart even up until now. I do struggle with it a bit when I think about it. I guess I always thought that it would be under control.”
Miller’s drug use was reflected in the music. His jazzy 2013 mixtape, Faces, opens with the rapper pondering his own death: “I shoulda died already, shit/Yeah, I shoulda died already/Came in, I was high already.” On “God Speed,” one of the most revealing tracks on his 2015 major-label debut, GO:OD AM, which he released after signing a label deal with Warner Bros. worth a reported $10 million, Miller raps, “White lines be numbing them dark times/Them pills that I’m popping, I need to man up/Admit it’s a problem/I need a wake-up/Before one morning I don’t wake up.”
For Miller, music was a form of connection — to different people, sounds and, often, himself. “That’s what’s most important — I want the whole body of work to feel like it’s me,” Miller said in July. “I speak through my music. So when people say, ‘How’s he doing?’ I can just say, ‘Listen to the music.’ That should be able to tell you.”
Mac’s trajectory was one of constant musical evolution, and even after his initial reinvention from precocious party rap to avant garde experimentation, he would switch course again. 2016’s Divine Feminine marked a third act to his artistic career. It featured live instrumentation and funky grooves, was easily his most beatific and optimistic work yet. It’s also when he began singing more prominently on his albums. “My only goal was to continue to get better,” he told Rolling Stone that year. “That’s all I want to do.”
Swimming, released three months ago, was in the same sonic vein as Divine Feminine, but it marked a step forward. It featured some of the most wrenching and, at times, painfully sad lyrics of his career. But its music, all orchestral swells and swishy keyboards, felt like a clear and cohesive statement from an artist more comfortable than ever in his ambition. And the album’s diverse roster of collaborators, from John Mayer and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes to Jon Brion, were prime indicators of the respect Miller had steadily earned from his peers. “Just the pure artistic growth and achievement itself is commendable,” A-Trak says. “Sure, early on some people didn’t want to give him his due, but he persevered through that and just kept his head down. You have to respect that.”
Since Miller’s death, the people who knew him have been eager to share what kind of person he was. “He was always polite to everybody,” Ty Dolla $ign says. “Spoke to everybody as soon as he comes in the room. Would shake everybody’s hand. He was just a supernice dude. Nobody that I know can say anything bad about him.”
On of the most touching tributes came from Ariana Grande, Miller’s ex-girlfriend, who took to Instagram to post a candid video of him a week after his death. “i adored you from the day i met you when i was nineteen and i always will,” she wrote. “we talked about this. so many times. i’m so mad, i’m so sad i don’t know what to do.” Grande would later reference Miller in her latest single, the Billboard-topping “thank u, next.” “Wish I could say, ‘Thank you’ to Malcolm,” she sings. “Cause he was an angel.”
“Beyond helping me launch my career he was one of the sweetest guys I ever knew,” Chance the Rapper wrote on Twitter. “Great man. I loved him for real. I’m completely broken. God bless him.” Mayer wrote on Instagram, “You gotta know that if you weren’t familiar with Mac Miller, you were about to be, whether you would have seen him at a festival, or a friend was going to catch a show and tell everyone they knew about it (like I did.) Mac put in the work.”
Elton John paid tribute to Miller on the opening show of his farewell tour, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the night after Miller’s passing. The singer dedicated “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” to the rapper. “Unbelievably, 26 years of age, and passed away yesterday,” the legend said before launching into one of his most recognized songs. “It’s inconceivable that someone so young, and with so much talent, could do that.”
“He would’ve gotten a huge kick out of someone as random and iconic as Elton John dedicating a song to him,” E. Dan says.
“It makes me happy that he got to put this last album out and see how well-received it was,” he adds, “but incredibly sad that I know he had so much more to say musically and would continue to amaze us all.”
Miller was aware that, even as he was in the midst of creating each of his artistic statements with his friends and peers, it was he alone who was responsible for his overall legacy.
“You eventually realize you’re the only variable,” Miller said a few weeks before he died. “The only difference is you. That’s why you have to be that honest. You put so much of yourself into what you do. Because in the end you’re the only thing that’s different. You’re the only thing that sets it apart.”
“Who knows what the perception of me is at this point?” he admitted to me in 2016. “To be honest, I don’t even know anymore. For a while it was like, ‘Oh, he’s a rich white kid,’ which is false. Then it was ‘He’s a drug addict,’ which was up for interpretation. At this point, I just want my music to be it. Just go there. As time goes on, people may or may not get the idea. But they don’t need to. All they need to do is listen.”
“It’s been tough. Really tough,” Thundercat tells Rolling Stone on a late-October afternoon. The bassist should be embarking on the start of a world tour with his friend, but instead he’s still emotionally reeling, six weeks after Miller’s passing. “But I don’t want to shut out the world. Sometimes getting together can help bring closure, or at least a bit of solace.” A few days later, he did exactly that.
On Halloween night, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, a start-studded lineup was assembled — from Miller’s close friends (Vince Staples, SZA, Earl Sweatshirt) to his collaborators (Mayer, Miguel) and admirers of his artistry (Travis Scott, Rae Sremmurd) — for a sold-out tribute concert in his honor. Miller had been booked to appear there for an early stop on his Swimming tour. When he died, his team kept the venue for an opportunity to reflect on his legacy.
“I would have done anything he asked me to do, and he would have done the same,” Anderson .Paak tells Rolling Stone in the days leading up to the show. He had promised Miller that he’d join him onstage that night to perform their Divine Femininecollaboration “Dang!” Instead, the musician performed alone at a drum kit, with Miller’s vocals piped in through the PA. Before launching into their song, .Paak eulogized his late friend. “I’ve been blessed enough that my closest friends, they’re still here,” he said. “I know if you’re in this industry a while, or you just live life long enough, you’ll see people come and go. But this one was really heavy for me. That was my friend.”
The concert lasted three hours. There were performances and tributes and testimonials from a generation-spanning range of celebrities and collaborators. What they each had to say — from Pharrell Williams to Lil Wayne, DJ Jazzy Jeff to DJ Premier, Donald Glover to Dev Hynes — was overwhelmingly positive, and hard to listen to.
But it was Miller, seen smiling in behind-the-scenes videos spanning his entire career, that provided the brightest light.
There was Mac goofing around backstage, hamming it up as he sang Creed songs in the studio, sharing rather than receiving wisdom with Rick Rubin (“I just make whatever I want to make, and then I try to fight for it, I guess”). And, as the night drew to a close, there he was, in a simple clip likely shot on his smartphone, seated at a piano by himself, singing an unreleased song. It wasn’t like his normal fare — more Randy Newman than Rakim — hinting at yet another artistic reinvention on the horizon, but it was every bit as earnest and affecting and vulnerable as his best work. “I wonder if they even cared at all,” Miller sang. The crowd was silent, enraptured. They did care, still do and always will (Rolling Stone).
I remember first hearing about Mac Miller a long time ago. I liked his song Donald Trump. I thought his videos were pretty cool, especially the Kool-Aid And Frozen Pizza production. He just seemed like a normal guy. But it wasn’t until years later that I really dug into his catalog. His song Poppy got me through the passing of my grandfather. I remember listening to that track and being so grateful that I found it right when I needed it. It makes me cry with every listen. I was heading home around the holidays to say goodbye to my grandfather at his funeral and services, and on the bus from school I was listening to that track on repeat. I feel like anyone who loses someone should listen to that song and it will do something for them, honestly.