One year ago today, news broke that Pittsburgh-born rapper Mac Miller had been found dead of an apparent drug overdose. He was 26 years old.
Roughly two months after his death in September 2018, Miller’s toxicology report was released by the L.A. County Coroners Office. The inquiry found Fentanyl, cocaine, and alcohol in Miller’s system at the time of his death, though none in high enough concentrations to kill him on their own. As such, his cause of death was ruled “mixed drug toxicity,” meaning that it was the combination of the substances in his system that caused the overdose.
Miller’s loss was devastating to the hip-hop community. Born Malcolm James McCormick, Mac had been steadily rising in the hip-hop world for the better part of a decade. Throughout that time, he steadily made fans out of his peers in the industry with his earnest reverence for classic hip-hop sounds and his fresh, introspective take on the genre’s longstanding tropes. With the release of his acclaimed 2018 album, Swimming, Mac Miller was poised to break through as one of the biggest acts in hip-hop—and popular music at large.
However, his personal demons caught up with him before he could reach that next echelon of star power. Miller had a history of substance abuse throughout his all-too-brief life and frequently spoke about his struggles in his music and interviews. Ahead of his death, he had been on the path toward cleaning up. With a big tour in the works and his new album climbing the charts, the future looked bright for Mac Miller.
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This was going to be Mac Miller’s year. He made a quantum leap in his music. That’s incredibly hard to do, to evolve and get better and more focused while your career is already underway. You don’t get there without a lot of work, and Mac had put the work in. I didn’t expect to play on his album the day he played some songs for me at his house, but when I heard “Small Worlds,” I gave it a short, chirpy little “yup,” which is the highest praise I can give a track. It means we don’t need to say another word, it’s going down. I grabbed the nearest guitar in the room and within a couple of hours we had finished a tune that made me so incredibly happy to have a part in, not to mention we established a nice little friendship. He was so funny I just kind of stopped typing “LOL” back in our texts. Mac was, to me, on permanent LOL status. I gave him whatever guidance I thought I had the right to, having been through the press ringer in the past and wanting him to understand that none of that noise could ever really take a bite out of the music he was about to put out. The last time I saw him, he was playing Hotel Cafe’ in Los Angeles for a crowd of 100 people. He was nervous, and honest about it with the audience. I thought that was so endearing, especially seeing as he would go on to play one of the best sets I’d seen in a very long time. His band was unreal. 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. He made his best album and formed the band that was weeks away from becoming a breakout live sensation. Believe me when I say that. I send my love and support to everyone who knew him better, because what relative little I did, I just adored.
Just under a month before his death, NPR published Mac Miller’s Tiny Desk Concert. The brief performance marked the first time Miller had performed any of the songs off Swimming for an audience. With a full, talented backing band surrounding him, Miller sat on a stool as he performed his verses with humility and grace as if to consciously put the focus on the collective, rather than on himself as the star.
After opening the three-song set with “Small Worlds“, Mac’s close friend and collaborator Thundercat moved from a shaker to his trademark six-string bass to hold down the low-end on “What’s The Use?”. Characteristically humble and softspoken, Miller quickly breezed through the customary between-song banter, once again opting to keep the focus on the music rather than on him.
As a string trio joined Miller behind the Tiny Desk for “2009”, he explained, “I really wanted to have strings for this song, because this one just means a lot to me. We weren’t gonna be able to travel with strings, so we sent these guys sheet music. We just played it for the first time together like 20 minutes ago. It’s a beautiful thing, man. Music is a beautiful thing.”
Miller kept both the band and the audience laughing and hanging on his every word as he riffed on that last observation. “Music is a beautiful thing.” You could tell he really felt the truth in that statement as he closed his eyes, straightened his hat brim, and prepared to bare his soul for this final number. As the newly acquainted string section eased into the delicate arrangement, Miller delivered the song’s opening lines with undeniable emotion.
“Music is a beautiful thing, man.” Mac Miller knew that. Soon enough, the world would know that to be true about Mac’s music, too. Swimming would wind up earning a nomination for “Best Rap Album”, but by the time the distinction was announced, Mac was no longer here to appreciate it.
On the anniversary of Mac Miller’s death, we’re remembering him through this emotional Tiny Desk performance. Much like Mac himself, this brief but powerful set displayed the incredible talent and thoughtful disposition that masked the pain and turmoil going on underneath it. Rest easy, Mac. You are loved.
Mac Miller – NPR Tiny Desk Concert – August 2018
[Video: NPR Music]