Two years ago, when Mac Miller’s independent debut Blue Slide Park appeared, out of the blue, at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for its first week sales, I compared Miller to iconic flash in the pans like Tim Tebow and Jack Johnson. I posited that Miller makes a comforting sort of boom bappin’ Wiz Khalifa pop rap that doesn’t push any buttons and isn’t eager to and that if the kids needed someone to turn on and tune out to for a few hours, there were worse options than Mr. Miller. But a funny thing happened as the middling to downright scathing reviews poured in. Mac Miller read them, and the then 19-year-old rapper was very clearly not pleased with what he discovered the wider world thought of his fan-adored niche.
The past couple years have seen Miller dabble in everything from jazz crooning to Madlib-style sound collage EPs to club bangers and pop songs. His increasingly surreal growth as an artist into someone that, of course, sounds like he grew up on both Black Rob and MF DOOM has been fun to watch, but Watching Movies With the Sound Off is where Miller finally gets over the hump of his lyricism and delivery, at least just enough to not detract from how great everything else going on with this album is. “I said it must be the drugs,” goes the lilting, even menacing hook to “Red Dot Music”, the Alchemist-helmed and Action Bronson-featuring centerpiece of the album. And indeed drugs play a profound role in the aural experience here.
Perhaps most surprising is when Miller goes straight Cosmogramma on lead single “S.D.S.” and Niki Randa-featuring “I Am Who I Am”. Or when Jay Electronica ends his three-year hibernation in the Rothschild mansion for a verse on a Mac Miller track titled “Suplexes Inside of Complexes and Duplexes” and reminds us why even at his most stereotypically Jay Electronica, there’s a reason we’re all still curious. His closeness with the Top Dawg crew also pays off, with two incendiary tracks featuring Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q that find Mac Miller holding his own with much more talented peers. It’s de facto title track “Watching Movies” that puts the whole Miller experience in its most positive light, however, as the SAP and Larry Fisherman (Miller’s production pseudonym) beat swallows Miller like the Wizard of Oz tornado and tosses him into a magical world where he’s a fantastic facsimile of Curren$y and Wiz Khalifa rather than middling nasal white boy.
Miller’s growth as an artist, honestly, is quite exceptional and all these smart new influences on both ends of the rap spectrum help ameliorate a problem he may never learn how to set aside: the voice. For everything great there is to be said about Watching Movies With the Sound Off—and I suspect most level-headed listeners should find a good number of moments here up there with the best from any other hip-hop LP in 2013—there is always the question of Mac Miller’s actual voice lingering in the background. Miller raps like a young Droopy Dog, Tex Avery’s beloved mope who couldn’t help but mumble while navel-gazing. It’s hard enough for rappers who have a naturally nasal delivery to win over non-core audiences, but when it feels like a put on or affectation as it so often does with Miller it just doesn’t make sense. There’s a vague aura of “cool”, I suppose, but it’s the kind of cool that makes sense in a brief smoke out, not necessarily on an hour long rap album.
The interesting conundrum with Watching Movies With the Sound Off is that Miller’s vocal deficiencies often feel at home with the spacy, psych-jazz production on display here. It just doesn’t do the words any favors, often allowing them to be obfuscated by the way more interesting things going on with the music and the few, more talented guest MCs. You could spend a week with Watching Movies and pick out a handful of great-to-amazing tracks for yourself, but I still find it quite a challenge telling anyone what the songs are actually going on about. It shouldn’t be a few days before one realizes there’s a track like “REMember” on here, an emotional ode to a close friend who died of a brain hemorrhage this past fall. But Miller remains the one part of the equation that’s a bit of a hard sell, even as he releases what is clearly one of independent hip-hop’s most inspired, balanced albums through the first half of 2013.
These days, it’s hard not to think Miller is aware of this flaw, though. Loaded Lux puts it best in his hilarious, highly technical Smack/URL verse that closes “Red Dot Music”, calling Miller out as a fluffy punk who probably made a lot more sense as the corny white boy foil to Wiz Khalifa rather than this somewhat pioneering, experimental marijuana enthusiast we find before us today. At just 21 years old, the self-awareness to allow 2012’s most infamous battle rapper to come onto his best album’s best track and make Mac Miller sound like the least deserving, least impressive artist ever… that takes a muscle that has clearly informed everything about Watching Movies, crafting an endlessly listenable album out of something quite simple: an earnest desire to grow and improve.