Mac Miller would have turned 30 on Jan. 19.
But the rapper, who evolved from Pittsburgh-bred indie artist to platinum-selling star who shared a nearly two-year relationship with Ariana Grande, died in September 2018 from an accidental drug overdose.
That an insightful exploration of his life – the new book “Most Dope: The Extraordinary Life of Mac Miller” – arrived the day before what would have been a momentous birthday wasn’t specifically planned. But the karma of good timing intervened.
“This book felt like a celebration of Mac’s life and what he accomplished,” Paul Cantor, author of “Most Dope,” tells USA TODAY. “There was always the goal that the book was done right and respectfully and honestly. Around the time I was finishing it, the publisher decided they wanted to release it around the time of his birthday. They felt it was a tribute to him and I agreed.”
Miller’s career technically began when he was 14 years old, freestyling in the attic of a friend. But navigating a rap calling as a young white man in a city increasingly entranced by another native talent, Wiz Khalifa, meant that Miller – born Malcolm McCormick – engaged in a slow-burn of independent iTunes releases and mixtapes that eventually cultivated a burgeoning fan base.
But by the time his debut, “Blue Slide Park,” arrived in 2011, Miller’s career was primed for takeoff. The album topped the Billboard 200 and introduced Miller to a wider rap audience with songs including “Smile Back” and “Party on Fifth Ave.”
Along with growing fame, Miller experienced deeper bouts of depression and, during his 2012 Macadelic tour, became addicted to lean, the combination of prescription cough syrup and soda popularized in the hip-hop community.
His music career produced four additional well-received releases before his death, though a rough review – which Cantor explores – seemed to lodge in Miller’s head.
Miller’s complicated history is painstakingly reported by Cantor, who interviewed more than 100 people during a three-year process. Miller’s family opted not to participate in the project.
Cantor traveled to Pittsburgh, California and New York – all places Miller lived – pacing the streets Miller walked and visiting the stores he patronized.
“If you listen to his music, he was a profound songwriter and thinker, a really genuine and deep human,” Cantor says. “I wanted to get into his head a bit to learn about that, what made him who he was.”
Cantor talked more about what he discovered about Miller’s life, from his relationship with Grande to his addiction to his place in hip-hop.
Question: What surprised you the most doing your research and interviews?
Paul Cantor: I was really surprised that a lot of what was discussed after his passing with regard to his relationship with Ariana. I thought there would be a lot more salaciousness there and there was not. That relationship was very positive and loving between them. Sometimes you talk to people and you think they’re going to tell you crazy stuff. But everything (I was told) was that she was this really positive influence.
Q: Did you try to talk to her for the book?
Cantor: I tried, but I didn’t get too far. With something like that, I think that experience with him was traumatic for her, as it would be for anyone. I think she was and still is grappling with what occurred. In time, maybe she’ll speak to me.
Q: You write a lot about how that one negative review really got in Mac’s head. Do you think people will be surprised to learn how sensitive he was about such things?
Cantor: Artists are very sensitive and he was an artist in the truest sense. He was committed to creating. Some of his longtime fans will be a little surprised. I think some of his newer fans might be unearthing part of his life and career they weren’t exposed to because they may have discovered him after his passing, either through “Swimming” right before he died or “Circles,” his posthumous album which presents an artist completely in command of what he was doing. Criticism is very important in any art form, but that review was a little bit of an attack on him personally. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but it was an example of early cancel culture. The degree to which it affected him should give some people pause as to how their words are affecting people. Whether an artist is playing to 10,000 fans a night or one fan, that is still his life on his records and (that criticism) was hard for a 19-year-old kid. (Cantor interviews the reviewer, who explains his reasoning, but also says, “I would still say it’s a bad album.”)
Q: Did the friends and sources you interviewed indicate that they wish they would have done more to curb his use of lean, which led to the stronger addictions that ultimately killed him?
Cantor: They did express it to him when the lean was becoming a problem. I think there was some regret, as anyone in that situation would have. I think it also spoke to his power, that he was able to say, ‘I’m fine, I’m OK, I got this.’ He had an unbelievable inner strength that was projected to a lot of his friends and there was a limit to how close they could get to voicing those things. And when he wasn’t able to function, he did stop. He did realize when he had an issue. And that self-awareness can be a little disarming.
Q: Mac’s race and his place in hip-hop is another major topic. Why was it so important for you to include that context?
Cantor: Race in music and the music industry is an uncomfortable subject. Where is the line between homage and thievery? Mac is a person who was in that space and wrestled with it a lot. Some of those things are uncomfortable to read, but think about how uncomfortable it was for him to live in it. I think toward the end he made peace with it.
Q: What do you want readers, whether devout or casual fans of Mac’s music, to take away from the book?
Cantor: He was a guy from an unlikely place who really believed if he led with his creativity and passion that eventually people would respect him for what he was: A talented musician with something to say.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Most Dope' book explores life of deceased rapper Mac Miller