Usain Bolt’s Final Turn

Inside Men

Justin Bridges for Grantland

Mac Miller Finds the Way

One of the most successful independent artists of the decade, the Pittsburgh rapper left his hometown only to stumble into a personal rough patch in Los Angeles. Now that he’s kicked some habits (thanks to Rick Rubin), moved to New York City, and signed to a major label, has Mac changed for the better?

“Clean this place up! And go find some incense!”

Mac Miller is in the throes of his Miguel story. It starts with a back-and-forth Twitter DM conversation with the singer, a conversation that almost convinced him to send part of his yet-to-be-finished new album, GO:OD AM, to someone who had hacked Miguel’s Twitter account. The next day, the real-life Miguel apologized for the breach, which led to Mac asking the real-life Miguel if he wanted to collaborate on a song for Mac’s upcoming album. Days passed before Mac received a message from Miguel, and when he did, it said Miguel was on his way to the studio. Immediately. Hence the yelling about the cleaning up and the incense.

Mac tells this story in the atrium-like living room of his brand-new apartment in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. The 23-year-old rapper is a natural storyteller, armed with the charisma of a seasoned stand-up comedian. He covers the entire surface area of the room as he glides through the story, figuratively transporting the audience — which also includes his publicist, as well as Mac’s girlfriend (and high school prom date) Nomi Leasure — into the studio with Miguel. After the cleanup, Miguel entered the studio, and Mac was instantly entranced by his Prince-like spell before the two worked on a song that eventually would make the album. Before departing, Miguel told Mac they should hang out soon, and Mac nervously responded, “I mean, I’m here but I’m totally down, just hit me, I’m down to go out, I can move shit around it’s not a big deal …” The story ends with Miguel walking out and Mac extending a longing arm in the singer’s direction, quietly — dramatically — whispering, “Miguel, wait.”

Mac may be tying up loose ends on GO:OD AM, but not everything in his life is in order. His new apartment, for example, is in complete disarray — two boxes sit in one corner, a flat-screen TV lays flat and unplugged on the floor, duffel bags are unzipped. He’s clearly still moving in. I spot a cat on the spiral staircase. “That’s Atticus,” Mac says. On a windowsill a sizable hard drive labeled “Larry,” an allusion to Mac’s producing pseudonym Larry Fisherman, sits next to a Pittsburgh Pirates lighter. Mac offers a beer, which I accept even though it’s only 12:35 in the afternoon. After a few sips, Nomi presents a second pet, this one sassily lying like royalty in a circular cat bed. “Someone gave the cat to us in the Chick-fil-A drive-through. We haven’t picked a name yet,” Mac says. And just like that, Mac and Nomi adopted a second cat.1 I continue to scan the apartment, eyes landing at my final destination: Minions slippers, one of which is filled with cash. This is a work in progress.

“We just pulled the U-Haul up last night from Pittsburgh,” Mac notes proudly. “I’m geeked to have finally made the full jump. I actually feel like this is going to be really good for me. And I hate to say ‘normal,’ but it’s dope to just pack your shit up in a U-Haul with your girl and drive to fucking New York.”

Mac in his New York City apartment.

Justin Bridges for Grantland Mac in his New York City apartment.

Mac Miller was born Malcolm James McCormick on January 19, 1992. Raised in Pittsburgh, Mac latched onto the local rap scene at a young age and was well-known by 15. “I came up in this place called the Shadow Lounge,” Mac says, referring to the Pittsburgh venue that was one of the city’s most important spaces for music and art until its 2013 closure. At the Shadow Lounge, Mac participated in the Rhyme Calisthenics MC Competition, becoming a regular well before he should have been allowed to enter the club.

In 2007, he released his first mixtape, But My Mackin’ Ain’t Easy, under an earlier, more embarrassing moniker, Easy Mac,2 thus beginning an unlikely career. For the next seven years, he would see the type of success that few independent artists would dream of. In 2009, he was firmly “Mac Miller,” releasing two mixtapes, The Jukebox: Prelude to Class Clown and The High Life. By 2010 — his senior year of high school — he’d signed a deal with Rostrum Records, the label home of Pittsburgh native (and fellow Taylor Allderdice High School alum) Wiz Khalifa. Mac would release three mixtapes for Rostrum as well as two studio albums: 2011’s Blue Slide Park, the first independent debut to top the Billboard albums chart since 1995, and 2013’s Watching Movies With the Sound Off, which sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week.

In the span of five years, Mac Miller had toured the globe and become a bona fide indie hip-hop success story. But during these years, Mac was also commonly thought of as a fratty-backpack rap hybrid, even if neither of those characterizations quite fit. Mainly, he was scrutinized for being white and suburban and doing so while occasionally wearing a trucker hat and an actual backpack.

“I had this assistant and part of what he did was wipe the coke — and sometimes blood — off my rolled-up bills. And I had this moment when I looked at my phone and saw that I had him [listed] in there as ‘Intern.’ I asked him what he had me in his phone as. He said ‘My hero.’” — Mac Miller

“In a way, based on what I was rapping about in my early days, I kind of brought it on myself,” Mac says about his initial reputation. “But I wasn’t from the suburbs, I was actually from the city. I wasn’t from the projects, but because it was the city, we weren’t that far from the hood. And I was caught up in a lot of the shit kids in the city get caught up in, but I just didn’t feel that comfortable in the beginning rapping about all the bad shit I was doing.”

In the beginning of this decade, there was something of a white-rapper renaissance well before Macklemore’s ascent, with artists like Yelawolf, Hoodie Allen, and Machine Gun Kelly rising to prominence. As has long been the case with white rappers, the barrier to entry is high, and suspicion is the audience’s default mode. And because Mac appeared at the beginning of this wave and became one of its signature figures, it was easy for him to be a target — patient zero for the white-rapper scourge.

Amid all of this — the fame, the money, the success (and the backlash) — Mac also began to develop an affinity for promethazine, commonly known as “lean.” Eventually he became addicted, leading him down a desensitizing spiral. “There was definitely a concerned period,” says Hot 97 radio personality3 Peter Rosenberg about interacting with Mac during this time. “I definitely started having conversations with people — people who like him and were fond of him in the industry — who were like, You seen Mac? How do you think Mac’s doing? I didn’t think he was going to overdose or fuck up his career, but I could tell he wasn’t doing great.”

“For two or three years of my life, I was on drugs every day,” Mac says now.

As his fame began to grow, Mac left Pittsburgh for Los Angeles, where he struggled not only with addiction but celebrity. “I was running around L.A. for three years like — you know Harold and the Purple Crayon? That was me,” he remembers. “I was in L.A. like, This is my world, it is what it is. No, silly — that’s not a door, it’s a fucking waterfall.”

Getting caught up began to catch up to him. So Mac chose to hole up, away from the world. “Being famous used to just defeat me. I wouldn’t leave my house because I was worried about someone being like, ‘Oh, are you Mac Miller?’ and then the rest of the night I couldn’t be myself.”

The discomfort caused by newfound fame, and the methods he used to cope, resulted in Mac essentially living in the studio, making song after song, theoretically in search of his next official album. Across two years, he wrote and recorded hours and hours of music — nine albums’ worth in total. But none of the completed projects was the right one.

Mac unpacks at his new home.

Justin Bridges for Grantland Mac unpacks at his new home.

“Every different project was just a state of mind I was in,” he says. “And some of them were made over months, some were in four days. It wasn’t like I kept trying and missing; it was almost like I was pushing off making the album I knew I needed to make. At that time, I just wanted to be weird and make shit without any stipulations.” Becoming a hermit, while creatively stimulating, also had its drawbacks. “There was a moment when I got really bad writer’s block. I got really scared and was like, ‘Holy shit, I burnt out.’ I thought I’d run out of shit to say.”

In the summer of 2014, Mac hit a low point, which also became a personal breakthrough. “So I’m fucked up in Europe one day, and I drunk-dialed Rick Rubin,” Mac says while scarfing down Mexican food at a restaurant blocks from his new home. “I was like, ‘Rick, dude, I’m fucked up, will you help me?’ So I went and kicked it with him for the summer in Malibu. And got clean.”

Getting clean doesn’t just happen, not even within the legendarily safe confines of the super-producer’s Malibu mecca. Part of his detox was from recording music. “I’d just go to Rick’s house every day and just sit and play the keyboard,” Mac says. “Before then, I never really played music unless I was recording it.”

“For two to three years, I was just numb,” Mac says about this period. “So when you’re coming out of that, it’s all going to come out at once. I was crying every day.”

When Mac started giving interviews after he’d begun the process of kicking lean, he’d explain the turnaround casually. In 2013, he told MTV he gained 40 pounds while using, saying, “I didn’t want to be fat on national television. I just stopped.”

While that may have been a factor, it wasn’t the whole story. He notes an encounter that rattled him in a way that vanity or health concerns never could. “I had this assistant and part of what he did was wipe the coke — and sometimes blood — off my rolled-up bills. And I had this moment when I looked at my phone and saw that I had him [listed] in there as ‘Intern.’ I asked him what he had me in his phone as. He said ‘My hero.’

“I lost it. I couldn’t stop crying. And that’s when it hit me that, even then, I could still have a positive impact on some people’s lives.”

It was then that a more serious and private personal evaluation began. “More than anything, it was mostly me realizing I needed to take responsibility for my life,” he says. “And not let this great opportunity slip away. And be a man and get myself better.”

Part of that meant gradually weaning himself off Rubin, too. “Thankfully I was in such a place of privilege where I could just pack up and go to Malibu and live with Rick for the summer.”

But he couldn’t do that forever. Over time, every day at Rubin’s became three days a week, which became weekly, which became only the times in which he’d have a relapse. Eventually, he got through that, too, and staying at the producer’s home became a thing of the past. “It was a struggle — a daily struggle — and it’s something I still deal with,” Mac says now of his addiction. You can simultaneously be through something and never fully through something, a reality he says he understands.

Between this series of scares, creative and personal, Mac’s turnaround became his new addiction. “I didn’t want to be that guy — I couldn’t be the one without anything to say. So at that point, I was like, ‘I’m going to just focus on living. And going outside. And just getting my life right.’” And he did just that, taking even more time off from recording music to focus on living his life. “I’m not 100 percent sober or anything, but I will say my outlook on life is way more positive.”

By year’s end, Mac had new publicists, a new management team in Kelly and Christian Clancy — best known as the “adults” who helped shepherd Odd Future’s rise — as well as a new record deal. In October, Mac Miller ended his run as an independent artist, signing with Warner Bros. “I didn’t want to end up doing Tech N9ne,” Mac says, referencing the notably independent, massively successful veteran Kansas City rapper. “Tech makes a boatload of money, he’s gravy. He has his whole thing. He’s killing it. But that thing exists — he already did that. I’ve proved to myself what I can do on an independent level. I’d done big tours, I’d had platinum singles, a no. 1 album — so I just wanted to see what the addition would be.”

It wasn’t Mac’s desire to be on a major label that showed a newfound level of maturity — it was the way he discussed it, and the rationale behind his decisions, that indicated a shift. “It’s been a great learning experience, because I just didn’t know this part of the game,” he says. “And now I find myself in this square one position where people are using words I don’t know. It’s like, What are you talking about, what’s that department?

Mac speaks giddily of the perks of major labeldom. He knows how hard it can be to expand your artistic vision working independently. “I’d never had a budget like this, a budget for a music video like I did for the first single, ‘100 Grandkids.’

He seems dumbfounded by his new reality, almost tickled that this has been the norm for many artists of his stature.

“We’re doing this special edition of the album where you’ll also get a cereal box. With actual cereal. And a bowl. AND A SPOON — it’s so sick,” he marvels. “And Warner literally had people to manufacture it.”

With so much of his life beginning to fall into place over the past year, there was only one thing left to do to truly start anew.

“I remember feeling like, ‘I got to get the fuck out of here or I’m finished,’” Mac says about Los Angeles. “Coming back to reality at times — it was too much. But figuring out how to process that and make music again was great. And that was another reason I wanted to come to New York, to have a chance to newly approach life, to pull back a little bit and live a little simpler. I remember talking to [Christian] Clancy and he said, ‘Reality just punched you in the face,’ so then I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to go to New York and get punched in the face with reality.'”

MacMiller_Grantland-9673Justin Bridges for Grantland

“What happened with Bill? You not gonna tell us anything about Bill Nye?”

Mac’s publicist has just taken a call with Bill Nye the Science Guy’s manager about a future potential collaboration, and Mac needs to know what happened. “Me plus Bill Nye,” Mac says, grinning. “That’s the best power couple ever.”

As we pay the check, a young woman approaches our table. “Are you Mac Miller?” she asks the person she most assuredly knows to be Mac Miller.

Though he’d alluded to a public anxiety earlier, Mac doesn’t seem annoyed, happily talking to her as she tells him about her fandom. This is part of his life now, and that’s fine. “I hit a moment when I was like, ‘Stop being a bitch, stop hiding from people, go out and enjoy yourself.’”

“I have a great time every day,” he says, “and I finally don’t feel bad about it.”

It’s a balancing act, accepting fame but also attempting to live a life with a semblance of normalcy. Like moving in with your longtime girlfriend, or worrying about the health of your cat as it heads to the vet, or reacting to the Internet going out at your new home. Or asking questions about your new neighborhood. (“Are there house parties in New York?”) And even getting starstruck around more famous people — at one point, Mac tells a story about being around Jay Z, catching himself staring in awe at Jay Z, and thinking he might get into trouble for gawking at Jay Z. (He didn’t.)

One way he’s held on to some of that normalcy is by working only with people he knows and enjoys spending time with. This has long been his formula, with many of his most notable Los Angeles collaborators also serving as his closest Los Angeles friends. Mac produced all of rapper Vince Staples’s 2013 mixtape, Stolen Youth, after the two were connected by a mutual friend, rapper Earl Sweatshirt. Mac has worked for years with the members of the label Top Dawg Entertainment, most notably Schoolboy Q, both of whom continue to instigate a joking rumor on Twitter that they’re each other’s ghostwriter.

“Everyone that I work with is a friend,” he says. “I won’t make a record with anyone unless we kick it. I want to have a story with every song. I would hate myself if that wasn’t my life. It would suck if I was on Warner and suddenly — here comes a Jason Derulo hook. And that’s no knock on Jason Derulo, but the process would be corny — unless Jay and Kanye are like ‘Drop a verse,’ because then I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll do it right now, you’ll have it in five minutes, but if you also want to kick it, too, that would be cool and great!'”

Mac is self-aware and good-natured about his career, but he takes his music very seriously, even the parts of his music that aren’t terribly serious. “When he started, he was kind of on his hip-hop shit,” Peter Rosenberg says. “But the way he lives his life and handles his career now, he’s really about his hip-hop shit. Like, studies the music. Really wants to fuck with good artists. And does it for the right reasons.”

Mac also seems to be aware of his demons and can acknowledge that he’s doing better, but knows he isn’t a saint. “There’s a part of me that is like, I don’t need shit, I’m going to rough it, I’m going to do something good for the community,” he says. “And then — I’m not even gonna lie — there’s the other part that is like, I want diamonds I want diamonds I want cars I want diamonds. I can’t act like it doesn’t exist. I can’t fight it.”

Mac sits in his music corner.

Justin Bridges for Grantland Mac sits at his keyboard.

After exiting the restaurant, we hop into an Uber back to midtown Manhattan. When I look over at Mac, he’s gazing at the boroughs that border the East River. I know that gaze — it’s that provisional period of peace that comes from looking out at one of Earth’s busiest cities. Moving to New York in your early twenties can be an overwhelming, exciting rite of passage, no matter who you are.

“When I was a kid, this was always my dream, to live in New York,” he says, still gazing. “When I was 6 years old with my mom, I had a scooter — a Razor scooter — and I just scootered around New York and knew I wanted to live here.” He had that starry-eyed Peggy Sawyer look in his eye. It reminds me this is still just his first day living in New York. And then he snaps out of it and connects the car’s Bluetooth to his phone. He dials up “Back to Back,” Drake’s dis against Meek Mill.

“My girl had to listen to me talk about the amazingness of the Drake situation for two hours,” he says. “I was like, But you don’t get it. It’s so amazing. And the Meek memes. And Drake and Kanye and Will [Smith] laughing [at OVO Fest]. It’s just so amazing. And what I liked the most about the whole thing is that this Drake dis is probably going to go platinum.” He says he loved the petty nature of it all. And because we’re both in a mood to celebrate the petty, we do as Aubrey prophesied and play the shit again — back to back.

The second time, however, we’re interrupted. Mac has a phone call. “Yes, this is Malcolm McCormick,” he says into the phone in his adult voice. It’s the vet. The unnamed cat is sick. Mac’s bummed — you can feel the sudden sense of responsibility come over him.

As a distraction, only minutes away from our destination of 30 Rockefeller Center, he throws on “Back to Back” one more time. “It’s so fire,” Mac says as we exit the car and part ways.

One week later, I head back to Mac’s apartment to hear his new album, and to hear about his first week in New York. As I knock on the door, a voice from the other side brattily screams for me to go away. A few seconds later, a smiling, barefoot, tall-tee-and-sweats-wearing Mac opens the door, welcoming me inside. I see that some things have changed, and some haven’t. The flat-screen TV? Still on the floor, still unplugged. But a Pittsburgh Steelers yellow “Terrible Towel” now hangs from the second floor of the apartment. And the Minions slippers have vanished. I see Atticus, still on the staircase. The second cat, which is upstairs, now has a name: Scout, completing Mac and Nomi’s To Kill a Mockingbird pet theme.

Instead of beers, Nomi offers coffee. Instead of going out to eat, Mac makes himself a breakfast sandwich. He offers some leftover cornbread to split, which he douses with honey after removing it from the microwave. He mentions having eaten at the local restaurant Vinegar Hill House for dinner the night before, as well as spending a long night at the West Side Manhattan bar-with-club-tendencies Up&Down over the weekend. It seems he’s been settling in, checking off boxes in his NYC starter kit.

We walk to his music corner — which consists of a white sofa chair, a laptop, speakers, and a pack of menthol American Spirits — and he turns on GO:OD AM. Occasionally he’ll yell something over the music about a specific song, a specific feature, a specific studio session. Occasionally he’ll stop it and we discuss something, like the recent death of the rapper Sean Price, with whom he had just been talking days earlier, had made music, and who he’d known for years. He excitedly talks about a track that wasn’t on the album when I was there last week, but has just gotten cleared. At one point, he stops to rave about the musician Thundercat. For the majority of the listen, however, he’s on his laptop, refreshing his Twitter timeline. The nerves from last week are gone. He’s confident. He knows this album is good.

“I’m not really worried about a leak,” Mac says confidently about an album still four weeks away from its September 18 release. “I would be worried if I had a shitty album. When you have a shitty album and everyone’s all hyped about the album and then it leaks and everyone’s like ‘eww,’ that’s where leaks kill you. But I’m not tripping about it.”

It may be good, and he may be confident, but he certainly isn’t satisfied. “He will work and change and fix things until he can’t anymore,” says Kirdis Postelle, senior vice-president at Warner Bros. “I just got a text from his manager this morning, saying there’s a little vocal thing that Mac wants to change in one of the songs, and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me, we’re two weeks past deadline.’ But we worked it out and he’s going to get to remaster and turn it in today.”

The care for seemingly inane details, the almost procedural tinkering makes sense when you hear GO:OD AM in full. It’s as much a play as an album, with recurring characters and themes surrounding a singular figure across 17 tracks. And like any good play, there are no accidental movements — all of the blocking is purposeful. “I have good relationships with people all over,” he says, “but one of the illest parts of this album is that everyone on it is so different, but nothing sounds forced.

“This wasn’t like the last album when everyone was always in my [L.A.] house, we were always kicking it,” he says. “I figured out what I wanted to make and then at the end, would call up someone and be like, ‘Do you want to do this song? I need you to come and do this skit.’

“I want people to understand how deeply immersed I am with my own shit. I don’t have an A&R. No A&R is sending me beats that I put [a verse] on. It’s so far from that.”

Now, he’s making music for himself and for the public. “I think the fans should want you to be a perfectionist,” he says. “At this point, to have someone buy your album — you should almost kiss that person’s feet. In the type of market that we’re in, fans should demand that an artist earns it.”

He regards the past — particularly his independent rise — as proof that his musical instincts are often correct. GO:OD AM is Mac’s moment to confirm them, and to prove that he’s grown up.

After the album concludes, we walk on his patio and talk about his first week. “It’s been a long-ass week, dude, between doing press all day and then coming home and moving in, but I love it,” Mac says, reaching for his lighter while shaking his head at the grim sight of rainwater buoying a collection of cigarette butts in his ashtray. “I’m geeked to be in a city that has bodegas,” he says. “Sandwiches, beer, laundry detergent, and cigarettes — whenever — they’re the greatest things ever.”

But not everything is perfect about the mundanity of New York life. “I waited on the cable person, but they never came,” Mac says. “I called the cable company and they were like, ‘That’s a third party selling you cable?’ How is that legal?

World-famous rapper Mac Miller is griping about the city’s cable, one thing that truly brings us all together.

“So, yeah, I guess they’re coming on Thursday now,” he says, before sighing.

No they’re not, Mac. Welcome to New York. 

Filed Under: Music, Mac Miller, GO:OD AM, Pittsburgh, Rap, Hip Hop, Warner Bros.


Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert