Like 2016’s The Divine Feminine, Mac Miller’s fifth album, Swimming, is influenced by the presence of the rapper’s ex-girlfriend, Ariana Grande. The pop singer was featured on the previous album’s single “My Favorite Part,” and Miller conjures her ghost here: “Time we don’t waste much, fuck when we wake up/Then have her sing just like Celine Dion,” he quips on “What’s the Use?” Together, The Divine Feminine and Swimming are an affecting tribute to love: The former is a lustful ode to romantic love, while the latter is an openhearted meditation on self-love in the wake of heartbreak.
That self-love makes it easier for Miller to dress his wounds with humor and optimism throughout the album. He seems unbothered as he grapples with unfulfilled desires on “Ladders,” confessing he’s “been in this shit so long that it don’t smell.” And he waxes cynical about the virtues of sobriety on “What’s the Use?”: “I’m so above and beyond, you take drugs to make it up.” Both tracks juxtapose the thorny topics of failed pipe dreams and substance abuse with fizzy synths and sticky bass. Indeed, this is party music for the inward-minded. For Miller, the sonic joy contained in these songs is medicinal and therapeutic—a sort of lifejacket for the emotional turmoil that subsumes him.
Swimming captures Miller at a creative apex where he’s acutely aware of where he’s been and where he can go. On “Jet Fuel,” he reckons with the consequences of fame, accepting his powerlessness to change what’s already been decided: “Used to wanna be a super hero,” he murmurs aloofly. On “Self Care,” he tunes out rumors surrounding his breakup and DUI arrest and withdraws from the world, as he did last spring when he dropped off social media. When he retreats into his own head, Miller locates a “beautiful feeling in oblivion” that’s the wellspring for the album’s exploration of self-healing.