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Why Mac Miller mattered

Mac Miller at Soundset in 2013

Mac Miller at Soundset in 2013 Star Tribune

First off: Don’t let any headlines fool you into thinking “rapper” was the sole title that brought Mac Miller his fame.

He was a rapper, yes, but also a singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. He may have become even more than all that, too, because that was the thing: He was always growing.

Mac, a Pittsburgh native who died of an accidental drug overdose last Friday at the age of 26, was still in high school when a run of mixtapes, most notably 2010’s K.I.D.S. ( Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit), had him well on his way to rap stardom. When he was just 19, his first official LP, 2011’s Blue Slide Park, released on Rostrum Records, became the first independently distributed album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food in 1995.

A month before Blue Slide Park’s release, Mac put out a mixtape called I Love Life, Thank You, but that happiness was only temporary. The reviews for Blue Slide Park came in, and the consensus was less than flattering; the most notable and notorious write-up was Pitchfork’s , which scored the album 1.0 out of 10. Despite Mac’s chart success, intense self-doubt would soon creep into his life. As he would later admit to Complex, he started drinking lean heavily—the first public evidence of his struggles with substance abuse.

While Blue Slide Park didn’t do much for me personally, I was also one of the countless high schoolers nationwide who already liked Mac because of that original mixtape run and songs like “Nikes on My Feet,” “Knock Knock,” and “Kool Aid and Frozen Pizza.” I still thought he could become something special, and that’s exactly what he did.

By his second album, 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off, Mac had transformed, going in a weirder, more underground-sounding direction, hanging and collaborating with guys like Ab-Soul, Action Bronson, Earl Sweatshirt, and Schoolboy Q. As a reinvention, it was the first official proof of a pattern that would ultimately define his career: He never stopped growing, never stopped changing, never stopped challenging himself. Eventually, seemingly everyone had their own favorite version of Mac Miller.

Mac was still evolving at the time of his death. He released his fifth and latest album, the jazz-, funk-, and R&B-infused Swimming, just last month. It was overshadowed by Travis Scott’s massively successful Astroworld, released that same Friday -- just one of the notable release dates in a summer packed with other, major new rap albums. But, maybe by design, the understated Swimming seemed to grow on listeners throughout August and into September. People were excited about Mac Miller once again, and he seemed excited too, looking forward to his tour kicking off next month. (He was slated to play the Minneapolis Armory on December 1st.)

Given Mac’s history with drugs, as well as his frankness about the topic in both his music and in interviews, the sad truth is that his following wasn’t exactly shocked when he was arrested on DUI and hit-and-run charges this past May, or when girlfriend Ariana Grande cited his habits as reason for their breakup that same month. But because the success of Swimming practically made us forget about those troubles, his death was still devastatingly abrupt. For me, like so many others of my and his generation, that sadness is still deepening. But while he was still with us, Mac proved his constant growth and resilience, and it feels like those aspects of his spirit will last the longest.