Photo via genius.com

Stars: 4 out of 5 stars

It has now been over a year since rapper, producer and songwriter Mac Miller’s untimely death at the age of 26. At the time of his death, Miller was well into the development of “Circles,” the companion piece to his 2018 album, “Swimming.” Now, thanks to help from producer John Dior, Miller’s original vision has been fulfilled in all its intended glory.

The most refreshing thing about “Circles” is how it subverts expectations. Yes, in a lot of ways, it draws parallels to the artist’s discography, but it stands out as the best album he has made due to his deviation from pure hip-hop. “Swimming” was good, but it fell a little flat for me. “Circles” keeps a similar tone to its predecessor, but gives it a burst of energy and a more deliberate placement of emotion.

The emotions felt throughout this piece are very deliberate. It starts with the title track, “Circles,” which is a slow, somber opening. “Well, this is what it looks like / right before you fall,” Miller sings on one of many lines in the piece that’s made even more impactful now after his death. The following track, “Complications,” picks up the tempo a bit while still maintaining the melancholy attitude which Miller carries throughout the entire album.

“Some people say they want to live forever but I’m just trying to make it through today,” raps Miller. Bars like this really encapsulate what this whole piece is about; it’s somber and relatable, and it’s all coming from someone who doesn’t want people to struggle the way he did.

The tempo continues to pick up on the song “Blue World.” Hearing, “It’s a blue world without you,” at the beginning of the track is sad for sure, but it’s rather brilliantly placed as it turns out to be the biggest head-bobber on the album. The Casio-keyboard-style production, the simple hooks are all in Miller’s signature style. One thing he always did well was make music that you find yourself singing along to before it’s over.

Overall, there isn’t really a bad track on “Circles.” The songs all keep a consistent tone, they move into each other well and they feel genuine. “Good News” is a confession of how difficult it is to be honest when you’re in a bad place emotionally. “Surf” is a surf-rock inspired sad song which makes the album, appropriately, come full circle. 

Stylistically, “Circles” is right in Miller’s wheelhouse. He does everything he’s good at, and it all shines through. His raspy voice and his nearly-acoustic sounding production make it not just a great Mac Miller album but a great indie-songwriter album as well.

“Circles” is a very strong start to this year in music and conveys a strong final message from a great young artist: be true to yourself, be happy where you can be and hold onto what you love.