Mac Miller’s ‘Watching Movies With The Sound Off’: Album Review

Patrick Bowman | June 18, 2013 6:00 am
It’s easy to see how far Mac Miller has come since he started racking up millions of views for his endearingly low-key collection of videos for singles from early mixtapes K.I.D.S. and Best Day Ever, as well as his debut album Blue Slide Park. Mac, similar to Rostrum Records labelmate and fellow Pittsburgh native Wiz Khalifa, used party-heavy, classic ’90s boom-bap to rap about his four favorite things: booze, weed, girls and money. And who could blame him? He was only 19 when he dropped BSP, which was famously the first indie debut album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart since Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food in 1995.

But critical success didn’t follow. BSP faced middling reviews — the best praise labeled him a lovable, goofy white kid, the harshest criticisms hovered somewhere around a poorly photocopied version of Asher Roth — and Miller’s lack of experience seemingly began to constrict his creative vision. As a result of the popular/critical dichotomy, early speculation surrounding Miller’s sophomore album circled around the possibility of a Hot 100 breakthrough, with poppier tracks, bigger hooks and higher profile collaborations pushing Miller into another tax bracket. Instead, coming on the heels of his weirdly introspective and sonically varied 2012 mixtape Macadelic, Mac announced Watching Movies With The Sound Off (out ) with a list of cred-affirming collaborators (Earl Sweatshirt, Flying Lotus, etc.) and basically confessing that he didn’t give a shit if the music sells or not.

And with the finished product of WMWTSO, Miller makes good on his confession. This is a challenging second album without a definitive, capital-S Single in sight, lovingly crafted by a young rapper whose tastes and talents — as an MC and producer — have branched out in new, exciting directions. But Miller doesn’t stick every landing.

His thematic choices and execution sometimes remain marred by bad judgment and immaturity, and his lightweight, life-of-the-party personality is basically absent, which morphs his sketches of young fame, chemical dependence and sexual revelry into introspective dirges with darkly moody protagonists and oppressive misogyny. Luckily, many of these flaws are spackled over by the murderer’s row of collaborators that alone would signal Miller’s move away from being a YouTube-dominating, populist juggernaut and toward underground credibility. Tyler, the Creator, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Action Bronson and Jay Electronica (!) all contribute sterling guest spots, while FlyLo, Cool KidsChuck Inglish, Pharrell and Diplo (the last two contributing lower-key, abrasive tracks) provided additional production.

The verbal gymnastics of Miller’s friend Earl, in particular, have rubbed off on the Pittsburgh MC in interesting ways. “Aviary,” a sparse, piano-driven showcase for all of Miller’s new talents, has the young rapper putting together some Earl-esque couplets with complicated internal rhyming and mouthfuls of syllables, rolling off his tongue pretty effortlessly without much sweat to show for it: “Look, concoctions of hamantashens, launching a bottle rocket / Done being nice, I’m here for your life and all the profits / I’m not your Conscience, you nuts? Almonds and Haagen Dazs /Auction off your grandfather’s watch, from the Holocaust.”

With the exception of “Aviary,” the album’s highlights almost always occur when Mac can bounce off a collaborator. The stunning Earl and Mac feature “I’m Not Real” churns with awkward breakbeats, synthetic strings and seasick synths, as the two 20-somethings trade contemplative quips with their vocals pitched way down (with Earl sounding like a dead ringer for Tyler). The Flying Lotus-produced debut single “S.D.S.” possesses (unsurprisingly) probably the best beat on the album, a fuzzy, Saturday morning cartoon theme put through the blender, with bristling drum parts and power-up synths.

Movies’ crowning achievement, though, is undoubtedly the collaboration with reclusive, cultish, legendary MC Jay Electronica on the Miller-produced cut “Suplexes Inside Of Complexes And Duplexes.” The sad, ascending string parts that buoy the beat give Miller a chance to spit some halting, disturbing rhymes (“My head continues to be haunted / I burn a city down while I’m unconscious”) and hold is own against Jay’s dizzying set of verses, dropping lines about Cinderella, the Wizard of Oz, Stevie Wonder and Ecclesiastes.

It’s a track that pretty much punctuates Miller’s determination to be taken seriously as an MC, which, in turn, seems to be the driving thesis of Movies as a whole. With some editing, there are maybe 10 tracks here that could make for a damn near flawless sophomore album, one that would resonate way more with the HipHopDX comments section than it would with the frat bros who vaulted Miller into YouTube stardom. In that regard, it will be interesting to see how Miller’s insanely loyal fanbase reacts to this new, intense direction, considering he has no qualms about leaving his adolescent hip-hop trappings behind.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

Patrick Bowman