Mac Miller has always occupied an odd place in hip-hop. He’s a solid, dextrous rapper with a chameleonic sense of style, but until The Divine Feminine, everything he’s released has felt somewhat like an apology. The frat-rap of his debut Blue Slide Park was commercially successful, but critically maligned, and each of his successive releases have seen him push to create more serious, “authentic” rap (albeit with declining sales). Watching Movies with the Sound Off and GO:OD AM were both solid rap albums that got lost in banner years for the genre, but it was hard to escape the feeling that Miller was trying to be something that he’s not. His mumbly, laid-back style flow doesn’t lend itself to hard-hitting, crunchy beats, which is what makes The Divine Feminine so refreshing; it finally sounds like Mac Miller is comfortable.
In 2016, it seems a bit like Anderson .Paak just wanders around the hip-hop scene and helps rappers make the soul jams they were always meant to, because that’s what he’s done with lead single Dang!. The track is just so smooth, and so funky, yet Paak’s “I can’t keep on losing you hook” has a real sadness to it. Miller himself really comes into his own on the track, with his verses sounding totally effortless, but being alternately sweet and funny. One moment he’ll be saying “I just eat pussy, other people need food”, but then pivot to something like “can’t concentrate, you’re always on my brain”. He seems more confident and relaxed than he ever has, and displays a series of alluring ticks, like the way he deliberately over-pronounces the syllables in “frustrated”.
The rest of the album follows a similar theme, and tone, albeit through a variety of sounds. Everything draws from a similar well, but explores remarkably different terrain. Dang! and We both fit into a g-funk mould, whereas Skin and Planet God Damn are more like a soul-infused hip-hop, not dissimilar to the chipmunk beats of early Kanye, or Tyler, the Creator’s tracks. Some tracks even abandon rap altogether, with Miller singing in a raspy croon on the Ariana Grande featuring My Favourite Part and Soulmate. The album covers a lot of sonic ground, but still feels cohesive, largely due to Miller’s strong work crafting a unifying theme.
The title suggests that The Divine Feminine might be about feminism, but Miller has gone a different direction. The album is entirely about sex and love, despite Miller’s protestations to the contrary (he claims it’s about learning from the women in his life, but that doesn’t really show in the lyrics too much), but luckily that’s territory that he’s well suited to. His casual flow and earnest tones lend themselves easily to discussing romance, so much so that lyrics that should seem lascivious in fact come across as funny and charming. The Divine Feminine is the first time Mac Miller truly sounds comfortable in his own skin, and by extension, is his best work yet.