The rapper’s final interview.
Mac Miller is nervous. He’s pacing, running scales and planning outfits in the Late Night With Stephen Colbert green room during a Monday taping where he’s the musical guest. It’s a windowless white space with two extraneous doors that don’t appear to move or lead anywhere; like a Scooby-Doo trap room. Wardrobe deliberations go on longer than you’d expect; and the room is making everyone loopy. The Pittsburgh rapper — normally relaxed and easy-going — is growing wiry from anticipation. After trying several crisp shirt and pant combos, Miller ends up onstage in his publicist’s sunset-hued Stussy sweatshirt, where he runs through an airtight performance of his new album Swimming’s funk-rap highlight “Ladders,” backed by the stellar house band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human. Inside the room, a sea of shiny, bald heads suggests that the crowd is considerably older than the late-stage teens and 20-somethings that comprise Mac Miller’s fan base. Colbert tickets sell out well ahead of the guest announcements; it’s possible that no one in the audience knew they were seeing Mac, or the episode’s flamboyant first guest Nicki Minaj, until days before, if at all. It becomes clear that Mac isn’t anxious about playing the room. He’s anxious about winning it.
I met up with Mac Miller in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel the day after Colbert with a plan to wander around and talk shop in lower Manhattan. Out back, there’s a cozy patio with a vaulted glass ceiling made doubly breathtaking by the onset of a fast-moving afternoon thunderstorm, the worst in a two-week stretch of late summer rain. The storm complicated our plan to cruise the streetwear shops up Mercer but offered a scenic backdrop for indoor reflection. Mac was still pondering the performance from the day before and wondering what he could have done better, even though the general consensus among the chorus of internet rap diehards who watched the video was that he did a great job. “I have a tendency to kinda brood about stuff and cook in it,” he says. “I’ll wake up and just sit here and think about it for hours.”
This is partly because Mac hears sounds even a keen ear might miss, and while this causes a potentially unhealthy level of self-reflection it also keeps him in a close orbit of jazz fusion guys like Thundercat, the funk apostle Dam Funk, and rap technicians Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar. Listening to the playback of “Ladders” on site in the mixing room at Colbert, Miller caught an almost imperceptible rhyming misquote in a backing vocal and asked staff to adjust the levels subtly so it blended in better. It’s not preciousness so much as a studio rat’s high bar for professionalism.
That attention to detail isn’t limited to the studio. Having a smoke on a bench on Bowery, Mac glanced up the street and then quickly popped back inside the hotel. He’d worked out that a gentleman peering at him from behind a bush was communicating with another in a vehicle across the street. Paparazzi were waiting for him outside Colbert the night before, and this looked to be more of the same. Photographers show up to Mac Miller’s scheduled appearances all the time, but hiding behind shrubbery outside his hotel feels cartoonishly weird. When the weather cleared, and the gentlemen watching from outside disappeared, we strolled up Great Jones and stumbled on the building where Jean-Michel Basquiat worked and lived. Mac looks for pointers on how to live and work as an artist in the work of performers of every stripe, from within rap and well beyond it; back at the hotel he gushed about HBO’s new documentary The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling: “He was always writing the words, ‘Just be Garry.’ ‘Just be Garry.’ And that shit struck a chord with me because that’s the goal, to get better and to try to make this shit the most of a reflection of who I am.”
As we walked, elderly gentlemen from a local men’s shelter recognized the rapper from reruns of his MTV show Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family. A steady trickle of excited rap fans stop him to say hello. The few that linger to talk longer all seem to want something; one wanted a feature for his mixtape, and another asked the rapper to check out his SoundCloud page, graciously sparing us the spectacle of a street cipher. Mac is cordial and patient with people even when he appears to smell a pitch coming. The most striking fan interaction happened when two deaf girls asked for autographs outside the hotel. Mac was quietly floored by this. He rejects the notion that he’s all that famous, but the truth is that he earned respect among hip-hop fans through years of sweat and hard work. Most rap careers open big and crumble over time, but this one is a long game.