Review Summary: Great production and featured artists fail to mask the shallowness.
Listening to a Mac Miller album in full has never been a top priority for me. Not being a pot-smoking college kid unfamiliar with the concept of quality control, I've never found his personality or musical style enticing up until recently. But his recent appearances on Ab-Soul's "The End Is Near" and Earl Sweatshirt's "Guild" convinced me that a transition had occurred, transforming Mac Miller from an obnoxious frat-rapper to being...tolerable. And his recent production work under the alias "Larry Fisherman" really impressed me as well, not being extremely intricate but still catchy and creative. So Watching Movies With the Sound Off
eventually worked its way onto my list of albums to keep an ear to the ground for.
In the post-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
universe, a lot of hip-hop production has become more introspective in mood and varied in instrumentation. Watching Movies
is no exception to this trend, as there are plentiful strings, keys, and subdued guitars to create a dark, depressing mood. It also takes cues from ASAP Rocky and his inspirations, making incessant use of pitch-shifts both high and low, and employing the acid/lean-soaked atmosphere of Rocky's debut mixtape on songs like the Mac/Earl-produced “The Star Room” and “I’m Not Real”. Watching Movies
is probably most reminiscent of Long.Live.ASAP
, for that matter, with its assorted styles and influences from both mainstream and alternative hip-hop scenes. There's the cloudy, piano-driven "Avian", the quintessential Flying Lotus beat on "S.D.S.", screeching banger "Bird Call", and "Aquarium", which is faintly backed by an acoustic guitar, a vocal sample, and occasional horns. All of these different sounds create a very immersive atmosphere.
But one is quickly jarred out of the album when Mac Miller starts rapping. Though he's definitely improved, that improvement comes from imitation of his intensely lyrical brethren like Earl Sweatshirt and Kendrick Lamar. As such, he spends more time trying to leave an unwarranted wordy impact rather than saying what he means. Which may indicate that he doesn't have much to say. Mac tries to paint that same image that Kanye West, Drake, and most of the hip-hop new school have been painting for the past three years - that of a wealthy but depressed man, whose sexual excursions and material goods leave him empty. Miller's ideas are unorganized, however, and so it's never made clear why he's depressed. He'll comment on the hollow nature of fame and wealth, but never put it in a context that makes it relevant. Biblical allusions and sociopolitical observations are tossed around without connection to the songs as a whole, all for the sake of depth that isn't really there.
Occasionally, Miller organizes a coherent collection of thoughts, like "Aquarium", in which he waxes philosophical in that classic stoned, existentialist way - "what even is life, maaaan?". It's endearing, though, and it matches the production to create what is probably the best song present. "Matches" with Ab-Soul is also good, dwelling on the past and the two rappers' maturation since their teenage years. "I Am Who I Am" provides what the album as a whole is in need of, a general concept. It's the only song when Mac's commentary on religion, politics, and wealth comes together cohesively and uniquely, and the woman singing in the background "It's our time to be alive/No earthly vehicle can contain this drive" alongside the watery electronics create the appropriate feeling.
But on songs like "S.D.S." or "Red Dot Music", though the hooks imply interesting topics (a call to any form of action, and drug-induced paranoia, respectively), the verses are just bland braggadocio. He's also not above the wince-worthy lines, including this gem from "Bird Call": "I used to give a fuck about success/Now I just wanna see Mila Kunis undress/Hope she's down for buttsex, it'll be a cum-fest". Or the closing line to "S.D.S.": "Spit the shit that leave a diaper brown - poo". Also present are some attempts at singing from Mac, which sometimes work (parts of "Objects in the Mirror" and "Aquarium"), and are more frequently appalling and unpleasant (the other parts of "Objects in the Mirror" and "Youforia").
So yes, this album actually is listenable and even has some high moments. But it is not on Mac Miller’s lyrical merits that it reaches those peaks - it's on the merits of the production, and the features, and Miller's imitation of his more acclaimed peers. Because I think that's why Mac Miller has changed his style somewhat - part of it is his increasing musicality by becoming a producer, but getting such negative responses must have left an impact on a young, immature guy. And so he watches his peers from the new school. He observes how Danny Brown, Black Hippy, Odd Future, Pro Era, ASAP Rocky, and their ilk get better critical reactions from both professionals and Miller's preferred demographic. And so, on Watching Movies
, Mac Miller tries to imitate the depth that those artists have without grasping the subtleties.