“Shut your piehole,” Mac Miller raps on his Flying Lotus-produced “S.D.S.”, adding “I’m dope and I know.” It’s a meaningful affirmation. The Pittsburgh native had a devoted following before his debut proper, Blue Slide Park, came out in 2011, but that album brought out more snickering “let’s just call him Wack Miller” trolls than anything he’d done before (that’s to say nothing of the album’s negative critical reception, which included an infamous 1.0 review from Pitchfork). Miller never learned to like being so divisive; as a recent Complex cover story hammered home, the then-19-year-old soon started messing with promethazine, among other indulgences, to cope. In a bunch of different respects, the kid had some work to do if he wanted to be widely accepted as an MC worth his renown. Lucky for us and for him, he finished that work in time for Watching Movies with the Sound Off.
Miller’s transformation has been a major storyline in rap circles these past few months. He released bold new music featuring guys from Black Hippy (Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q), as well as members of Odd Future (Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt). There were strong production moves, most notably the space-case nod of FlyLo’s “S.D.S.”. But Miller isn’t just cool by association. With Watching Movies, he’s proved his overhauled vision is able to produce at least one great 71-minute LP.
Miller is the guy who said, “I ain’t no hipster, but girl I can make your hips stir,” so we know his judgment was once far from perfect. The 21-year-old is more judicious now, though some dubious choices do pop up. The crystal almost-pop of “Youforia”, Watching Movies’ closer, is a major misstep, and I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys the rest of the album listening to it often. Miller is also still in need of an editor, and there are confusing lines here from time to time: “When I die, throw a couple bad bitches in my casket.” Uh, will the ladies be dead too or what? But for the most part, Watching Movies sounds free and easy enough to deserve the “stoner rap” tag it’s been slapped with and detailed enough to show us that the previously unassuming Miller really can give a fuck.
Watching Movies is, especially when compared with Blue Slide Park, a left-of-center rap album. We learn this early, as Miller’s voice is pitched-up to Quasimoto-like effect on opener “The Star Room”, and Earl Sweatshirt’s appearance on third track “I’m Not Real” is one of his most abstract ever. The overall weirdness of the record does lead to a sturdy sound bed, though, and it’s one that frees Miller up as an MC to the point where he moves effortlessly from subject to subject, whether it’s his family, weed, or his insistence that “I don’t act hard, I still read Babar.”
When I saw Miller at Soundset Festival in 2011, I couldn’t believe how many kids were there to see him, first and foremost; neither Curren$y nor Big Boi drew the same fanfare the relative rookie did. Of course, Miller was writing a lot of songs like “Knock Knock” and “Donald Trump” then, and nothing here is hooky enough to find the same audience. Still, Watching Movies is Miller’s most enduring, and endearing, project yet. I won’t be worried if he decides to overhaul his sound again someday – I trust his artistic acumen now – but it would be nice to see him run with the aesthetic he found here. Either way, Miller now sounds so hungry that it’s all but certain he’ll be even better the next time around.
Essential Tracks: “I’m Not Real”, “S.D.S.”, and “Suplexes Inside of Complexes Inside of Duplexes”