Rapper's death raises ethical concerns within music industry
In every generation, a genre reaches the crux of profitability and counterculture influence. This intersection is why a band like Nirvana could top the charts in ‘92 while being incredibly progressive, or why Miles Davis could brawl with the New York Police Department in ‘59 and not be written off as a “bad negro.” While counterculture figures are a good estimate, the most obvious proof of when a genre captures the zeitgeist tends to be the involvement of the youth. When doo-wop flourished Frankie Lymon was topping charts, when soul music proved fully profitable the Jackson family saw its opportunity and grabbed it. When hip-hop assumed its current place at this crossroads, this tradition birthed acts like Tyler, the Creator, Chief Keef and the late Mac Miller.
Miller was well on his way to fame almost as soon as he was finished with high school, and his debut album "Blue Slide Park" topped the Billboard 200 when he was 19 years old. That accomplishment is not inherently bad, but the prestige that comes with it is dangerous. The rapid access gained through newfound fame was described by Miller’s close friend Earl Sweatshirt, who’s also faced many similar issues at an even younger age. On his song “Inside,” Sweatshirt cynically describes overnight success. “Catch a wave, now you in the industry ocean,” he said.
The metaphor is a fitting one, as new artists are often thrust into lives radically changed over the course of a few frantic months. The changes most obvious to the viewing public are the positive ones, seeing teens bouncing from city to city, meeting their musical heroes and maybe even getting a TV appearance or two. It all sounds great, but if you kept listening to Sweatshirt’s “Inside” you would have heard a different side of the coin.
Sweatshirt candidly talks about his substance abuse issues by calling himself a “face-drinking smoker, it help me duck when emotion jab.” A reliance on drugs to cope with the overload of being jettisoned into the spotlight is all too common among all types of artists but is especially liable to affect musicians. Every show means another venue offering free drinks night after night, every city full of fans dreaming of how cool it would be to smoke with their favorite artists.
Later in his song, Sweatshirt summarizes this problem. "Fame is the culprit who give me drugs without owing cash.” It’s the culture that we’ve fed into, that drugs are a conduit to our favorite artists’ creativity, or at least an important part of their lifestyle. It’s the reason Future can make a song called “HATE THE REAL ME” without raising any real concern for his mental health, or why a man claiming to be Demi Lovato’s drug dealer can talk to TMZ on camera without fear of consequences. The problem with the “industry ocean” is that so many artists drown, and we’d prefer to watch rather than throw them a life jacket.
What makes Miller’s passing such a gut punch is that he recognized the trend he was falling into, and still succumbed to it. Starting with his second studio album "Watching Movies with the Sound Off," Miller seemed increasingly aware of the pitfalls of being in the cycle. He even spelled out his self-destructive tendencies on his third album "GO:OD AM" when he said, “I wash these pills down with liquor and fall/Leave it to me, I do enough for us all” (“Perfect Circle/God Speed”). The drug use wasn’t the problem, but the blatant abuse of those substances was what caused listeners and critics to worry.
Nevertheless, when his fourth studio album "The Divine Feminine" came out, it seemed apparent that he was in a much better headspace. These struggles resurfaced earlier this year with another DUI, but his fifth studio album "Swimming" painted a much rosier narrative. The album centered around personal growth, moving on and self-discovery. He even said, “I don't have it all, but that's alright with me” on the penultimate track “2009.”
That made his sudden passing on Sept. 7 all the more shocking.
Although he’d grown more mature musically and personally, his long-held worst habits ended his life. The cycle of glorifying drug abuse across the musical spectrum is harder to shake than one may initially presume. Miller’s legacy will not be his mistakes, but rather the music he made and inspired, yet, it plays an integral part in his story.
It’s a problem far from unique, as Michael Jackson and the aforementioned Lymon both passed away due to similar problems. The toxic mix of near limitless access to drugs at an incredibly young age is one that has shown itself from overnight successes to Disney Channel veterans and everyone in between. It may seem reductive to say that Miller’s death was in line with a long-held pattern, but it’s not inaccurate. This problem seems unlikely to fix itself, and it’s worrisome that the onus to address these issues is on the music industry, since executives will always focus on their bottom line first. In a 2016 interview with Clique TV, Future even admitted to rapping about drug use because it’s a “catch,” implying substance abuse can make an artist more interesting and sell more records.
The music industry needs strong mentors more than ever, especially for younger artists. In conversation with Beats1’s Zane Lowe, Miller summed up the culture he lived in. In a tragic sort of irony, he recognized the lack of checks and balances. He said, “I lived a certain life for 10 years, and faced almost no real consequence, at all. I had no version of the story that didn’t end with me being fine.”
If only he was right.