And then there was Miller, a 19-year-old from Pittsburgh with nowhere near the pedigree of those other artists at the time but who proceeded to make chart history alongside them.
When Blue Slide Park opened with 144,000 copies sold in its first week in November 2011, according to Nielsen Music, the full-length became the first independently-distributed debut album to hit No. 1 on the chart this century. (Blue Slide Park was released on Rostrum Records and distributed by INgrooves via Fontana Distribution.) The previous indie-distributed debut to reach the top of the Billboard 200 had been Dogg Food, from the hip-hop duo Tha Dogg Pound, in 1995.
The chart feat would be impressive on its own. Looking back nearly seven years later, however, the way Miller -- who died of an apparent overdose on Friday (Sept. 27) at the age of 26 -- accomplished that No. 1 bow is even more astonishing. Miller topped the Billboard 200 without any meaningful radio airplay or breakthrough single; his highest-charting song prior to the album release, “Frick Park Market,” had peaked at No. 60 on the Hot 100 chart.
Miller had not guested on any major hip-hop projects ahead of his debut album, and Blue Slide Park includes zero featured acts on its track list. For comparison’s sake, Death Row Records mainstays Tha Dogg Pound had already guested on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle by the time Dogg Food was released, and the group wrangled Snoop in for its lead single, “New York, New York.” ("I did it all without a Drake feature," Miller later boasted on the track "Here We Go.")
So how did Miller do it in 2011? In the pre-streaming era, the teen rapper broke through via the digital sales of successful mixtapes, like 2010’s K.I.D.S.; a relentless touring schedule, with 2,000-capacity shows aimed at young teens; and a buoyant social-media personality that extended to an uncanny sense of maximizing YouTube views. That combination -- output plus live shows plus online engagement -- represented the standard playbook for an aspiring rapper hoping to spark a grassroots movement in the early 2010s. Yet the No. 1 debut of Blue Slide Park in 2011 showed that there really was a movement around Miller. Anyone who doubted his charisma or commercial potency just had to take one look at the numbers to see that Miller had garnered a true, dedicated following.
“When I first started, I thought I was going to be the biggest thing in the world,” Miller told Vulture, in an interview that ran online one day prior to his passing. “There was this time when I was the most Googled thing on the internet. It was like ‘diet, carrots, and Mac Miller.’” Released two months before his 20th birthday, Blue Slide Park finds Miller rapping about crazy parties and getting money; his personality is effervescent, but his similes are clumsy and the production includes a grab-bag of dissenting styles. Critics hated the album, comparing Miller to frat-rap auteurs Asher Roth and Chiddy Bang; Pitchfork in particular savaged Blue Slide Park with a 1.0 rating out of 10, describing Miller as a “crushingly bland, more intolerable version of Wiz Khalifa without the chops, desire, or pocketbook for enjoyable singles.”
Miller admitted in a 2013 Complex interview that he was so distraught by the criticism that he became addicted to promethazine, or lean, as a result. "A lot of the reviews were more on me as a person," he said. "To be honest, that was even worse.”
The history of popular music is littered with examples of artists that enjoy a single moment in the spotlight and never understand how to innovate beyond it. Miller would not let that happen. Following Blue Slide Park’s unexpected No. 1 bow, Miller spent his career pushing his sound forward and re-imagining his persona as a vocalist, to the point at which his most recent release, last month’s Swimming, features an artist almost unrecognizable from the kid on Blue Slide Park.
Over the past seven years, Miller toyed with rhythmic pop music, as on “Dang!” with Anderson .Paak and “The Way” with Ariana Grande, whom he dated and shared a close relationship with; flipped jazz samples and explored live instrumentation, recently with artists like Thundercat and Jon Brion; opened up about depression, loneliness, substance abuse and heartbreak, in a manner that never felt performative; and, increasingly, sang on his albums, often as an effective way to express his wounded psyche (see “Perfecto,” on Swimming). Five years after rapping that he was “tryna go bananas like it’s Donkey Kong” on Blue Slide Park, Miller released 2016’s The Divine Feminine, a soulful concept record about female energy and the respect that a romantic relationship demands.
That musical and lyrical growth did not come without Miller thinking hard about his place in music, specifically perceiving his own privilege as a white rapper. “I remember touring and doing shows, and I was the first rap show ever in all these colleges,” Miller told the Fader in 2015. “Six thousand kids, and I’m the first hip-hop show because I’m white-college-friendly. That was always a demon for me. It was hard to sit here and know that, because I was a white dude, I was able to sell easier and be more marketable. That wasn’t tight to me. I wanted to go through the same shit that everyone else did.”
That’s a thoughtful, hard-won assessment for a young artist to arrive at, and demonstrates how Miller constantly sought to earn his spot in the hip-hop community -- through his friendships, through his collaborations, through hard work and respect -- rather than rest on the laurels of his early success. As his worldview expanded, so did his songs, which he described as the clearest window into his headspace. “The people that have the best chance of knowing me, that would like to, would just be by listening to my music,” he told Vulture. "Please leave me to my studies," he raps on the final song on Swimming, which is a fitting way to remember him.
As Miller freely experimented with his music, the fan base that had turned out to buy Blue Slide Park in 2011 grew up alongside him and supported his detours into more challenging sonic territory. Swimming debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 last month, his fifth consecutive album to reach the Top 5 of the chart. Critics also recognized Miller’s growth as a recording artist, as Swimming earned a 78 out of 100 on the review aggregator site Metacritic, the highest score of his career.
Sadly, we’ll never know how Miller’s music would continue to evolve. Following his death, casual fans and unfamiliar listeners are now exploring the discography he left behind -- and the curiosity at the heart of it. Miller’s album career started with a bang thanks to a massive debut of Blue Slide Park, but part of his professional legacy is a thirst for personal transformation in spite of how successful that first act had been.
Many artists would have seen the first-week numbers of Blue Slide Park and spent their entire attempting to recapture that magic. Miller refused.