Photography Eric Chakeen
It's been almost five years since Mac Miller released his debut full-length Blue Slide Park. Though it enjoyed a monster first week of sales — becoming the first independently distributed album to top the Billboard 200 in 16 years — its critical reception was less enthusiastic. Other artists might have been content to rest on those commercial laurels, pulling in cash with a proven formula. Miller is not one of those artists — not by a mile. His 2013 full-length follow up, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, was called a "quantum leap in artistry" by Pitchfork, and 2015's GO:OD AM a homecoming victory lap.
For a while, I wondered how this transformation was possible — how house party kegger cuts gave way to refined, jazz-inflected melodies; how quips about seven day weekends shape-shifted into verses packed with pathos and world-wise humor. I stopped wondering when I met Miller, whose adoration and appreciation for music is literally uncontainable (after waxing poetic about New Edition's buttery harmonies, he tries out a few of the iconic group's dance moves). The Divine Feminine, his forthcoming album due September 16, will introduce his richest sound yet. That's because Miller's all-consuming love — for music, for women, for the universe — is its raison d'etre.
"One of my favorite things about making music is being able to capture the human experience from different angles. And I feel as though I'm an artist that's not sewn into an identity," he explains. "You can't hear Mac Miller and be like, 'he's gonna give me this.' That's what I love, what I want." It's true. GO:OD AM touches on music industry politics, race, and overcoming drug addiction; it's fearless, but a tightly-constructed piece of art. As he neared its completion, "somebody asked me what emotion I wanted to tackle next. It got me thinking about how I don't feel I've tackled love enough," he says.
The Divine Feminine began as an EP, but Miller says he became so wrapped up in its creative world, it quickly evolved into a 10-track album. Its outlook on love is refreshingly multifaceted, experimental, a little cosmic even. There's nothing wrong with bedroom bangers or serenades for strip club Cinderellas, but Miller fortunately pursues something much more expansive: "It was about using my experiences as inspiration and broadening them into something that's deeper than just a personal narrative — really getting into the idea of love," he says.
This vision of love unfolds in stages, beginning with beauty. "To me, love is the most beautiful emotion and no matter what, you're overwhelmed. It's like nothing exists anymore. That's where we start — that blinding, overpowering love high," he says. "It gets into sex, issues, resolve; it goes through this path that applies not just to love of another person, but love in general, the feminine energy of the planet." Despite its journey into such varied landscapes, Miller maintains, "there's always hope. No matter what. I don't give up at any point on the record; there's no, 'fuck this it's a wrap.' I'll always fight for it."
Miller has assembled a truly enviable roster of collaborators to color this ambitious vision, from lyricists like Kendrick Lamar to members of the jazz community like Robert Glasper. Ty Dolla $ign — a highly coveted co-sign for his raunchy, forward-thinking R&B — revisits territory not so familiar to the Southern California Casanova these days. "When the record shifts into a more sexual place, his vocal deals with first time type things with a girl, almost like after prom type sex. He sings in a way I've never heard this man sing," he says. After Miller and Thundercat spent an hour imagining Cee Lo in the booth on "We," they actually got him for it. "All these people love music like I love music. They were really able to tune in to where the emotion on this record was," he says.
Perhaps the collaboration he's most excited about, though, is with some lesser-known names: a group of students from Juilliard that feature on bouyant funk cut "Dang!", The Divine Feminine's first single, released in late July. He describes their ability to sight read sheet music and pump out perfect arrangements with an excitement typically exhibited by kids on Christmas. "To be a violin player at Juilliard — one of 25 in the world — they make movies about that shit! Julia Stiles, bro! Save the Last Violin! This one girl is in there looking at me through the glass and just hits a 20 minute violin solo. She's peering into my soul," he laughs. "I was like 'go off!' Just sitting there like, 'My life is unreal!' I love watching musicians, true musicians, really play."
The collaboration I'm most excited about is his reunion with Ariana Grande, the pint-sized powerhouse that Miller has watched transform into one of contemporary pop's biggest stars. "When we first started working together, she wasn't even a singer yet. We used to write in my house and hang out," he says (at the time we speak, the pair's late-night "Into You" remix had just been released; their boo'd up pap snaps would surface a few weeks later). Though they hadn't spoken in some time, Miller says when he hit Grande up with a song he wanted to team up on, she accepted without hesitation. "We went into the studio to work on it and seeing her growth, I was blown away. You give her a canvas, hand her whatever paint you want her to work with, and she'll make the most beautiful picture ever. Her voice is that good. Seeing where she is now about how well she can approach a record — her melodies, everything — blows my mind. She's gonna be around for a long ass time."
Even before releasing her own phenomenal album Dangerous Woman earlier this year, Grande has been outspoken about sexism and misogyny; she wrote an impassioned statement that praised Gloria Steinem and her aunt Judy, the first Italian American female president of the Press Club in Washington D.C. Miller similarly counts the women in his own family among the most inspiring figures in his life and music. "My grandma has the best love story in the world; that story is what I've been chasing my whole life. Seeing her love for my grandfather has inspired me from both sides of the table, about how a woman can treat a man and a man should treat a woman," he says.
Miller might be chasing his grandparents' storybook romance, but he's doubtlessly inherited his mom's wide open heart. "My mom is a superhero to me — I'm not even trying to be that kid, my mom just is a superhero. It's real!" he laughs. "My whole life has had a sense of beauty in the welcoming aspect of what my home was — people from everywhere being able to feel accepted at my house." Based on her more recent exploits, it really does seem like she can get down with anyone. Miller says she introduced him to Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes, and struck up a conversation with Malia Obama at Lollapalooza. "When we were at Bonnaroo, she was in some elevator with Thom Yorke, having no idea who Thom Yorke is. She's like, 'So, you playing in the festival?' And he's like, 'Yeah, I'm with this band called Radiohead.' And my mom's like, 'Cool. My son's playing the festival. His name's Mac Miller.' So they kicked it and I guess he really fucked with her. He introduced her to the whole band!"
Though The Divine Feminine enshrines such varied shapes and textures of what love is and can be, Miller just hopes his listeners feel it. "In one of its earlier stages, I played it for a good friend of mine and a girl he was with. Watching them listen was my favorite thing ever. They started on kinda opposite sides of the room, and gradually moved closer and closer as it played. They were in it, they were really in it!" he exclaims. "That's exactly what I want — for people to lose themselves in the emotion, to take that ride. I want people to put on the record and it's a date in itself. I want people to love to this record and realize they can love to it."
'The Divine Feminine' is scheduled for release on September 16; pre-order it here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Eric Chakeen