If you scroll back a couple of weeks on Mac Miller’s Instagram, past the concert shots and fashion portraits, you’ll find a photo diary of the Pittsburgh rapper’s recent trip to South Africa.
There, nestled among photos of beautiful beaches, mossy mountains, the Mandela House and zebras, is a minute-long video that encapsulates Miller’s experience there. In a nondescript backstage area somewhere in Johannesburg, we see Miller — in a navy-blue hoodie and mirrored shades — bouncing giddily as the intro to his song “Cinderella” plays and a throng of fans shrieks and sings along with Ty Dolla $ign’s hook.
But for the giant grin on his face, Miller looks like a boxer psyching himself up for a big fight. And then, right on cue, he beelines for the stage and begins rapping. The camera follows, revealing a crowd that stretches to the horizon. The scene fades...not to black, but to blinding light.
“That was almost a tearjerker, to be honest,” Miller says in a telephone interview from Atlanta, in advance of his headlining gig here at Halloween on the Rocks. “You gotta understand: For me, I’ve been making music for the majority of my life, and regardless of any type of success, that’s what I’d be doing. But to go out there and to get a response like that? As a human being, being able to see that part of the world is incredible. It’s something you don’t think you’re going to be able to do when you’re growing up. And then to go out there and have fans? You can’t ask for anything better.”
The South Africa trip was just the latest step in a never-ending move toward maturity for Miller, a 24-year-old MC, multi-instrumentalist and producer who has been rapping since his early teens and scoring hits for almost as long. Ever since his debut album — 2011’s Blue Slide Park — topped the Billboard albums chart, Miller has lived a life in the spotlight, for better and sometimes for worse.
Still, moments like the one in Johannesburg are special, he says.
“I’m never not blown away by people responding to my music and people singing the words. That never gets old; I never get used to that,” he says. “And regardless of if it’s Colorado or South Africa, it’s an amazing feeling. You put so much of yourself into what you do, to have people that have their own experience with it in their lives — [it] blows my mind how music can reach so far.”
Miller’s trip was part of a promotional push for his new album, The Divine Feminine, which came out September 16 via Warner Brothers. It’s his fourth official full-length album (not counting mixtapes), and in it, Miller fully explores a funky, jazzy, soulful vibe that he’s only hinted at in the past, particularly on 2013’s Watching Movies With the Sound Off.
That vibe has always been in the tool kit, he says. It didn’t change, and the audience didn’t change. The artist did.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I think I’m just starting to learn how to jump in with both feet, going all the way and not teasing at something,” Miller says. “Believing in myself and just jumping in, that’s the only way to do it. Also, [I’m learning] how little perception actually matters to what I do creatively. What people expect from me...doesn’t change what I do. I’m not making records based on what people think I’m supposed to do.”
Miller’s music is benefiting from that shift in focus. The Divine Feminine is his best album yet, a confident fusion of warm horns, lush strings, twinkling keys and late-night beats that leaves plenty of room in the arrangements for Miller’s affable raps and, for the first time, his singing voice. Guests include Anderson .Paak, Bilal, CeeLo Green, Kendrick Lamar and Miller’s current romantic interest, pop superstar Ariana Grande.
Thematically, The Divine Feminine is about searching for peace within the concept of love, Miller says. He doesn’t shy away from the subject, whether he’s speaking on a spiritual level or simply reciting the mundane details of a committed relationship. And, of course, dirty talk is never far away. “Now we got our own apartment,” he raps in album opener “Congratulations.” “And this morning you cooked the eggs with the kale. I tried to hit it while you was gettin’ dressed. You said, ‘All you ever think about is sex.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, well. You know me so well.’”
The album’s highlights include “Dang!,” which pairs .Paak’s feathery hook with a low-key funk groove, as well as the aforementioned “Cinderella,” with its addictively grainy melodies. “Soulmate” is a futuristic synth-disco number complete with a Robin Williams sample and production by Dâm-Funk. The guitars in “We” wiggle and warp like they were left in the back window of a car on a scorching hot day. On “God Is Fair, Sexy, Nasty,” a typically killer performance from Lamar sits alongside super-sweet spoken wisdom about love from Miller’s own grandmother.
All told, The Divine Feminine is a little bit weird, yet well-crafted and highly listenable. It’s a very grownup effort from a guy once pegged as the new face of “frat rap.”
Miller doesn’t disagree.
“I feel like I’m continuing to grow as a human being, and I’m happy that my music is able to evolve. Every year you feel like you have it all figured out, and then you continue to learn more about the world and more about yourself, and that’s kind of how I see what’s happening with my music,” he says. “Every year I’m like, ‘Oh, I got it. This is what I’m doing.’ And then an album comes out, and three months later I’m into something completely different that I never thought I’d be creating. It’s about keeping that conversation alive and keeping music a living, breathing thing in my life.”
Of course, with an album of love songs out in the world right now, it’d be strange to talk to Miller without acknowledging his relationship with Grande, who seemingly confirmed the couple’s long-rumored coupledom last month on Ellen. Grande introduces The Divine Feminine, then later sings on a song called “My Favorite Part.” In his interview with Westword, Miller never mentions Grande’s name, and he deflects the idea that these songs might be about her, or even that releasing them now is essentially opening the door to more questions about his personal life.
“None of that was planned. It all happened at separate times,” he says. “I was already full steam ahead, but, like...my life is my life, and I’m going to continue living it. I can’t be a prisoner to perception, so whatever people wanna say, that’s awesome.”
Spoken like a man who’s on solid ground — sure of his art and happy with the people surrounding him.
“I’m the most at peace that I’ve been in a long time, and I think I’m starting to figure out...” Miller begins, his voice trailing off. “Like I said, man, for right now, I feel like I’ve got it figured out. But that will probably change once I dive into the next album.”
Halloween on the Rocks, 6 p.m. Monday, October 31, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720-865-2494, $39.95-$99.50, all ages.
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