In the fall of 2016, Mac Miller had a pleasant phone chat with Rolling Stone while he strolled around a shopping mall in South Africa, where he had a tour stop. He had just released a new album, The Divine Feminine, and was going strong with his then-girlfriend, Ariana Grande. We published segments of the interview in 2016; here’s the complete conversation.
How are you doing?
I’m good. Just doin’ a little hanging out in South Africa. So far so good.
What are you up to there?
We’ve been doing some sightseeing. We went up to a couple hills. The views here are amazing. We got some seafood. Now we’re at the mall. You gotta hit the mall, man! I picked up the South Africa rugby jersey for the show tonight, ‘cause go on at like 11:30 tonight, so it’s gonna be cold. I got some stuff ready that’ll please the hometown. And the jacket is fire. Keep in mind I’m not gettin’ no trash. Nothing that’s not fire.
So, everyone feels like you made the artistic leap on this album. And that’s after the previous album was a big leap. How much are you focused on making those leaps, trying to move forward artistically, trying not to repeat yourself, trying to grow?
I never wanna make the same album twice. So it’s always creating a new world. As far as being conscious about what artistic growth is, I don’t know, man. It’s all music I’ve been making for a while. I guess I forget what people’s perception of me is and that this is surprising. I mean, I want everything to be moving forward. I never wanna move back — and with this album, I think it surprised me how much it surprised people.
You once said that when people compliment your singing, you blush. You sing a ton on this record, comparatively speaking. What has the process been of finding your voice as a singer?
I think just knowing that it’s my voice. That’s what makes it unique and that I’m not gonna be some completely classically trained, spot-on singer who has this ridiculous vocal range. Like, I’m gonna have my own voice. And I think it’s just a journey of getting more and more comfortable with that. It feels like being naked, a little bit. You’re just kinda out there. I’m not gonna sound like Justin Timberlake, and that’s OK. It’s just been a process of doing that and just going for it. And failing, like trying something out and sounding horrible sometimes. That’s fine.
Are there singers who inspired you in that?
There’s no person that I’ve really listened to that’s been, like, oh, “if he can do it, I can do it,” type of thing. It’s really just, like, letting it happen. Having random people say that I have a nice voice is wild to me. But singing live also is a big help just because then you do it, and that’s kinda the most out in the open that you can be. There’s no sitting there and putting reverb on it to make it sound right. It kinda is what it is. So it’s just repetition and practice. And the more I sing, the more comfortable I am with it. And the more I hear myself singing on a record, the more I get used to my own voice. And I stop worrying about what is “good” and “bad.” It’s more just what I do.
When I first heard “My Favorite Part” on some playlist, I didn’t even know it was you. I just thought it was some soulful shit. Take me through how that track came together.
Well, I just wanted it to be something really simple instrumentally. I put that hook together pretty instantly. Then I stayed up the whole entire night going back and forth on whether I was gonna sing or rap on it. Then, like I couldn’t decide and then I just went to sleep — like, I give up. And woke up and decided to just sing. There was possibly a little courage from John Jameson involved, but I just went for it and then I hit Ariana up to get on the record and we went over to a studio and worked on her part.
She has crazy vocal chops. Did you have any concern about singing on a track next to her?
I’m not trying to compete with her singing on any day. Never. When she comes in, she’s supposed to sound angelic. She’s supposed to sound, like, “Wow, this is amazing.” Me, I’m just capturing an emotion.Then our voices together sound how they sound.
Any fear of getting too soft or sappy with a song like that?
I don’t think about that shit, man. I’ve had every kind of perception about me out there you can think of, so all I’m thinking about when I’m making music is the music that I’m making. I’m not worried about how it’s gonna be perceived. I’m not worried about if people are gonna think that I have no business doing this or that. Fuck all that. I’m just creating different planets, so, like, people can enjoy them, come to them … or not. Getting tied up into the whole, like, what the perception of Mac Miller means to the music I’m making is counterproductive. I’m just, like creating.
What did you learn from collaborating with Kendrick Lamar?
He was really feeling what I was working on when I played this stuff for him. We were talking on the phone and he was asking me why I don’t sing more, and I was like, huh, that’s funny. And this was literally, like, two days before we met up to make this song, so I had already had all of this music done, and I was like, “Well, then I guess you’re gonna like the next record.” The more I spend time with people who I consider masters of their craft, I learn that it’s about taking your time, just being patient and not forcing anything and just taking your time with records and, like, letting them come together.
You had a great conversation with Vince Staples about hip-hop and race. He was talking about the difference between white rappers who are corny and white people who rap and are cool. How would you explain that distinction in your own mind? Because you knew exactly what he was talking about.
I just see myself as somebody who makes music that happens to be white. In America, race has a huge thing to do with what your experience is. I just try and make music that’s for everybody. Like, you know, I’m not directing what I’m talking about to one race in particular. That doesn’t, like, move who’s involved in the discussion. It’s just like, I just make music, and I happen to be white. And whoever gives me an ear is more than welcome to be in the conversation.
Macklemore has gone as far as to question his right to rap. Have you?
Musically, no. Have I thought about whether being white has caused me to be more or less successful in certain things? Of course. It’s a real thing. But my right to make music, no one can really give or take that away. In America, race has a huge thing to do with what your experience is, but I just try and make music for everybody.
How has sobriety changed you?
This planet has a certain gravity, man — it rises in the morning, it sets at night, and I never really followed that. But now I go to sleep at night and wake up in the day, and that’s been a beautiful balance in my life. Along with not feeling like shit.
Has it affected the way you create?
I feel like I capture a lot more real emotion, especially with my voice. And I’m not forcing anything. I used to never be able to walk away from a song unfinished, so I’d stay up for days and days at a time working on one song, so now, I’m able to recognize when I’m inspired and when I’m not, and work during times I’m inspired, you know? And my voice is a lot more of an instrument now. I’m able to use it in a lot more different ways I just sound more awake.
When you were a kid, what music did you first respond to?
The first rap album I ever listened to was Aquemeni. Which is a fucking awesome start. I got Aquemeni, went to my grandma’s room, she had a CD player. I took the CD player out, I took out the lyrics sheet, and I locked myself in my room and rapped along to the whole CD.
And that was it? Then you were in?
[Laugh] Then I was in. Then I could rap, apparently. I don’t know.
What’s your philosophy on being in a high-profile relationship? How do you handle the attention on it?
I just don’t pay attention to it, you know? I live in reality. And yeah, just don’t pay attention to any of that. I never focus on what people are saying about it. That has nothing to do with our relationship, you know? We just live. We just live, man. There’s nothing that’s gonna stop me or her from living, especially like things people say.
In your career, how will you know you’ve succeeded? Because you don’t judge yourself by critics, you don’t judge yourself by what people say, so how will you judge yourself in 10 years, in 20 years, when you look back?
That I keep getting better. That’s kind of like my goal. So l when I stop getting better, that will be a problem. I think my goal is to just continue and keep pushing myself and working and seeing what else I can do. There’s so much untapped sound to work with. Just continuing to explore that and being able to go further and further with what I can, how I can push myself musically.
You can play a bunch of instruments, right? How often do you actually use that skill, or is it just something you hold on reserve?
I mean, I definitely use it. It’s all how my mind works. Being able to play I think helps me work on arrangements and work on different aspects of music or being able to just put the whole thing together. But yeah, I play a lot. A lot of times, it’s also just therapeutic, though. I just play to play.
When you hang out and play with Thundercat, what comes out of that?
Yeah, man, we just jam out. We have so many recordings that I don’t know if they’re gonna get released, but it’s like having a conversation with your best friend. Like a lot of times we do that shit just for fun and we record it. Being able to witness Thundercat play the bass is like one of the illest things that music has done for me. I get to watch him, and he’s the best ever.
Your 2011 track “Donald Trump” is still one of your biggest songs. What were you thinking when you wrote it?
He was, like, a symbol of money when I was younger. Now he’s just a symbol of, like, “Hell, no!” I still play it. It’s a banger. It goes hard at shows. We change it up a little bit, like we say “Fuck Donald Trump” at the beginning. It has never been an ode to him.
The footage of Malia Obama dancing to that song at Lollapalooza caused a whole controversy.
Yeah, that was fucking wild! She’s a human being and a girl, and she had a great time with music, and I was kinda star-struck when I saw her on the side of the stage. The controversy was bullshit, ridiculous. Like, what? Let her dance! Let everybody dance!
You’re Jewish, and it’s the High Holy Days. Have anything to atone for?
Fuck, man. Yeah! Don’t we all? If I had to pick something, what I’m going for this year is just being 100 percent honest with everybody in my life.
Do you think Drake has to atone for anything, or is he good?
I think he’s solid, man.
You have a huge lotus flower tattooed on your neck — any hesitation about getting something so prominent?
I’m not worried about court. Or getting another job. And a lotus flower shines most beautiful in the murkiest of waters.