I’ve heard a lot of analytical voices over the years eagerly detail the expert stream-of-consciousness musical technicality rapper Mac Miller throws down on 2014 mixtape Faces. And while I’ve done plenty of previous dabbling in the then-22-year-old’s headspace on the piece, it wasn’t until the recent re-release of Faces that I thoroughly took the mixtape’s (now) 25-song journey to its completion. Both the new version as well as its original incarnation, initially made available free online.
Despite the 2021 edition’s removed samples due to rights issues and some slight instrumental changes, it still largely delivers on Miller’s tour de force of drug battles, struggles between darkness and light, and dodging in and out of the windows of a chaotic life that’d eventually result in his 2018 demise from a fentanyl-laced cocaine overdose. It’s the furthest type of album I’d have expected from Miller at one time, especially after his bright baby-faced independent pop-rap rise to stardom with 2010’s shiny-eyed K.I.D.S. and 2011’s Blue Slide Park. But I’ve had a lot to learn about Mac since falling head over heels for his final two masterful albums Swimming and Circles, and part of that included realizing he was so much more than just a half-drawn image of some Pittsburgh slack-rapper.
Here instead was a musician who ultimately preferred being sequestered in his studio (dubbed “The Sanctuary”) as he explored just how far the deep end of his talent pool truly went. Themes of girls and partying present on Miller’s earlier work quickly gave way to new stories in the chapters of his own pain, depression, love, ego and mortality; all of which are delved into on Faces.
There were some record execs at the time who felt the direction would cause his star to fade, when the truth was something much more enduring. While Miller’s Blue Slide Park persona might have quickly given way as a gimmick had he stayed on that path, what instead resulted was a fragile, expressively brilliant yet self-destructive humanity in a young man whose lightbulb simply burned out too soon. What was once derision of Miller’s origins instead simply became a question of, what might have been with more time? What might have been next after 2018?
Sadly we won’t ever know the answer. As it is, I know we were fortunate to have Mac Miller as long as we did. Even four years before his overdose death, Faces is rife with references to significant cocaine use (“Polo Jeans”, “Friends”, “Angel Dust”), fears he would “die before he detoxed”, and that his doing drugs was “just a war with boredom but its sure to get me” (“Malibu”, “Funeral”). Miller even eerily seemed to foretell how his eventual death would play out on “San Francisco”, and pondered if he’d even make it to another album with closer “Grand Finale”.
Periodically there are times in your life between the headphones of melody where a new musician in your life becomes something… more invested. Sometimes without you even realizing it’s happening and being woven into your DNA fabric. I’ve absolutely found that in Mac Miller, who utterly defied my expectations and showed me how wrong it was to put anybody’s talent in a predetermined box.
The listens (especially in later years knowing the tragedy of Mac’s story) aren’t always easy, but they’re real with warts-out honesty. And as hard and as painful as that can be to endure sometimes, it’s also often a way to create a bond over even the implication of shared experiences. Both the ups and downs in those pairings.
Faces certainly has its fair share of uncomfortable truths when it comes to what was going on in Mac Miller’s life at the time. But despite the dark paths and alleys within those narratives, Miller’s talent only continued to blossom around those gritty city streets in his mind. And that led to the creation of so much beauty within this mixtape. And within so much of his catalogue.
I wish it wasn’t the end, but he did have one hell of a gorgeous Grand Finale.