Mac Miller Talks Ariana Grande, Donald Trump, Making the Soulful Celebration of Women & Love 'The Divine Feminine'

Gari Askew
Mac Miller

Get ready for a new Mac Miller. The Pittsburgh rapper has found his voice in more ways than one. Look to tracks like the recently released "Dang!" featuring Anderson. Paak, "We" with CeeLo Green and "My Favorite Part" co-starring girlfriend Ariana Grande, and Miller’s fourth studio effort The Divine Feminine is a slight departure from his past work. Starting with its unlikely title, The Divine Feminine, the remarkable album is equal parts hip-hop and funk-soul, a collection on which Miller is as much a singer as he is a rapper. Miller lays down his heart-baring, sandpaper vocals on bleating jazz horns, swells of strings, delicate piano and spoken-word passages, including a sample of late comic genius Robin Williams from Good Will Hunting and Miller’s grandmother, who concludes the record with a touching account of the romance in her life.

Singing more, working with analog instruments and giving in to R&B impulses are all things Miller has long toyed with in his head. Traces have worked their way texturally into past releases, including 2015’s ode to finding sobriety GO:OD AM, which came out almost exactly a year ago. But The Divine Feminine is, in Miller’s words, the result of the artist telling his fears and insecurities to "get the f--- outta here."

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No doubt Miller’s six-year rise since signing with Pittsburgh’s Rostrum Records in 2011 hasn’t been without its hurdles. Early on, the "Donald Trump" rapper took his critical lumps; dealt with the challenges and scrutiny of being a white rapper with a growing national profile; and struggled with insecurities, depression and a well-chronicled drug addiction that threatened to not only sabotage his career, but had people worried for his life. Though refreshingly candid about his issues, Miller has re-emerged with a new confidence in the past year or so.

The Divine Feminine, as the name suggests, is a celebration of women (not in a thirsty way), but more than anything, it's an "exploration of love." On the opener "Congratulations," Miller admits to being "the jealous type." On “Stay,” his gritty voice urges his girl not to leave, while the funky "Soulmate" contemplates finding "the one." The smooth love note “My Favorite Part” should prompt plenty of gossip-site speculation, thanks to the renewed attention on Miller and past collaborator Grande as a couple.

Miller’s not really accustomed to life in the paparazzi limelight, but like everything else these days, he is taking it as it comes -- and that includes Donald Trump. While Miller’s 2011 hit named after the controversial billionaire is still a fan favorite, the rapper makes a point of reminding people that he does not want the Republican presidential nominee anywhere near the White House.

The project also brings another classic Robin Williams line from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society to mind: "Carpe diem! Seize the day, boys! Make your lives extraordinary." With The Divine Feminine (due Friday), Mac Miller has done just that.

GO:OD AM came out less than a year ago. Did you always plan on putting out another record so soon?

It wasn’t a plan because I wasn’t even trying to make an album. I really just finished that last record and wanted to get into exploring the emotion of love and everything that comes with it, so I just set out to make a little side project. But once I kind of got in there, I was like, "Whoa. There’s a lot here." So I just kind of kept going. And so now, it’s two days less than an exact year that we have another album out.

In the past, you kind of put a foot in R&B and jazzy areas with some tracks, but The Divine Feminine is as much an R&B record as a hip-hop record. Did you know from the get-go that you wanted to create a different sound?

I’ve been dancing around that kind of thing, and it’s like I’ve kind of wanted to go full steam ahead and see where it could go. So many times, I’ll be working on an album and I'll have this foundation of a sound, and then I start asking myself, "Well, where’s the bangers? An album needs bangers." And then before you know it, you have 19 songs and all of them sound completely different. Whereas this one, I was just like, "No, this is what this album is." I think that sound, instead of being like an underlying theme, became the album. It’s really like my first time doing this cohesive of a project.

You’re singing more too. Is that something you’ve wanted to do more of?

I’ve been creating songs like this for a long time, and I’ve just been scared to put them out. Singing, to me, just feels really vulnerable. I haven’t been as confident in my singing voice in the past, but then I just kind of realized it’s not about whether my voice is the most incredible singing voice. That’s my voice.

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Some of the most iconic voices in history are not technically perfect voices, Bob Dylan being the classic example.

Exactly. That was literally the first person that popped in my head when you said that. I remember being 12 years old and Bob Dylan came to Pittsburgh [for a show]. It was general admission seating and I somehow got to the front row. Just seeing him sing, I started to realize more that I have a good sense of melody. I always have and I know what notes I can hit and what are kind of a little out of my range. But I think making this record and all those questions, I was just like, "Get the f--- outta here." Fear to me is a guiding thing more than anything. I’ve been scared to do shit like this through my whole career, and I’m just happy that I am now comfortable enough to do it.

Speaking of singers, you’ve got Ariana Grande featured on "My Favorite Part." Did you guys record your parts together in the studio or separately?

We recorded her part together. I had recorded my part a couple nights before. She’s the best at what she does and I’m just gonna do what I do, which is different, but [the vocals] actually complement each other really well. She just sounds so angelic when she comes in, and I have more of a grit to my voice, so I love how the textures combine.

Obviously, there has been a lot of attention surrounding you two post-VMAs. You seem like someone who would not be that comfortable with the paparazzi spotlight.

I was very unsure about what was gonna start happening. I was a lot more nervous about it because I’ve always been a lot more low-key, but there’s a way to continue to be that, because she is as well. It’s just easier for me to be low-key than it is for her. But you know what? I’m happy and content where I am, so I’m not really worried about it. If I was in a different place personally, in life, it would probably be different. But I don’t care about it like I thought I would. I’m not opening every link or reading what people are saying. I’m just continuing to live life. So yes, it is new for me, but it hasn’t affected my personal life, you know?

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With the speculation and now you releasing this unabashedly romantic record, I think the takeaway may be, "Oh, Mac has found true love and that’s what inspired this record."

This record is inspired by the world. "My Favorite Part" is one of the last songs that was made. And this is really the first album I’ve ever made with a happy ending, so I think where the record ends up is something very different. A lot of it was inspired just by the universe, the story of love, and the emotion of love, how love affects me is different now. You see it in the ending of the record.

On "Soulmate," you use a Robin Williams sample about taking that first step and finding your soul mate. Do you believe in the concept of a soul mate and have you found one? Or are you still searching?

[Laughs] No, I’ve found one but I do wholeheartedly believe in that. I also wholeheartedly believe in the idea of love, and I think it’s interesting that in the year 2016, there’s all these different ways of what love and relationships are supposed to be. Like "What is monogamy? Who cares? It’s 2016." But I don’t know. I still want to have the kind of story that my grandparents had.

That’s your grandma speaking at the end of the record?

That is, man.

How did you decide to have her on there?

I was actually in a studio in New York, and she’s in Pittsburgh. I told my mom, "Mom, I need you to go over to Nanny’s house and just put the phone down, and ask her to tell the story of her and Poppy." And she killed it! It was so poetic and beautiful. I cried multiple times when I first heard that.

What about the concept of The Divine Feminine? It’s not the sort of title you expect from a male hip-hop artist. Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I mean to me, women have always been the sturdiest people in my life and have been incredible sources of energy. I don’t know if I’m a feminist, but I just know that I am all for outspoken, powerful women. I’m blessed with them in my life. I don’t know if that makes me a feminist. A lot of this record is about the energy surrounding this planet. It’s a feminine one -- Mother Earth. We need to hold that up as something sacred.

It wouldn’t be a Mac Miller interview if I didn’t mention "Donald Trump." Anyone who saw you on Nightly With Larry Wilmore a few months ago knows you’re no Trump supporter.

I think for a while, I was like, "Donald Trump is gonna end up being the president. Ha ha ha!" And the more I say that, the closer he gets, so I think it’s really important for everyone to not take this as a joke. No matter how ridiculous it might seem, it’s a f---ing real possibility that he could become the president of the United States so people need to go to the polls and vote, regardless of what you feel about the whole entire system. Even if you’re an anti-system person, even if you think voting isn’t real, even if you think it’s a big conspiracy, in this election, I think it’s important. Even if you don’t like Hillary. None of that matters. All that matters is that this mother----er could possibly be the president of the United States, and that’s terrifying, that’s horrible. Especially at a time like this when our country needs to move forward.


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