Review Summary: A notable step backwards in Mac Miller's promising career.
Ever since Mac Miller reinvented himself as a serious artist on 2013's Watching Movies with the Sound Off, he's become one of the most unpredictable acts in hip-hop. Each release he's put since Watching Movies has featured a dramatically overhauled sound that's explored a wide variety of lyrical themes and hip-hop subgenres. While Miller's recent output has been defined by constant shifts in sound, his latest LP The Divine Feminine is the type of eyebrow-raising departure from the norm that will likely surprise even his most diehard fans.
Since releasing his third LP GO:OD AM last September, Miller has entered a relationship with pop singer Ariana Grande and the headspace that their budding romance has put him in results in The Divine Feminine being the most joyful album of his career. Hearing a clear-minded, lovestruck Miller is kind of odd given the themes of drug use, depression and self-loathing that have ruled his past few releases, but I admire Miller for once again making an album that encapsulates his mental state at a given period of his life.
Unsurprisingly, Miller's newfound love translates to a record full of romantic ballads. Given how long Miller has been down a rabbit hole of darkness and self-medication, this shift to more jovial subject matter is far from a seamless transition. Miller's process of trying to re-adjust his voice to convey messages of love and commitment leads to an album that features sincere triumphs ("Planet God Damn"), noble failures (the bloated 8-minute epic "Cinderella") and a whole lotta mixed bags ("God is Fair, Sexy Nasty", "Congratulations", a few other tracks). The smooth, low-key production handled by a number of excellent veteran producers including Frank Dukes, Vinylz and DJ Dahi and Miller's introspective lyrics that paint a vivid picture of his relationship with Grande prevent the record from completely crashing and burning, but The Divine Feminine largely lacks the focus and confidence that has made his last few projects so impressive.
The only time on The Divine Feminine where Miller flat-out nails his new sound comes on the beautiful funk/soul-inspired "Dang!", which was released as the album's lead single back in July. With the aid of a killer horn grove and flawless guest spot from rising R&B star Anderson.Paak, Miller drops a wildly infectious, upbeat song that perfectly illustrates the joy his new relationship is bringing him. If The Divine Feminine featured more songs that matched "Dang!'s" level of positive energy and poignancy, Miller's latest reinvention would've far been more successful.
While the surprising lack of cohesion and confidence certainly does its fair share of damage to the overall quality of the product, The Divine Feminine's biggest crutch is Miller's singing voice. Miller has the type of voice that is passable in small doses, but is far too weak to carry a song on its own. For reasons I'll never be able to comprehend, there are four songs ("Skin", "Soulmate", "My Favorite Part", the aforementioned "Cinderella") on The Divine Feminine where Miller either exclusively or almost exclusively sings for the duration of the track. "My Favorite Part", which is a duet featuring Grande, is able to skate by on the happy couple's terrific chemistry, but the other three songs quickly becoming grating due to Miller's erratic, often tone-deaf singing. I understand that crooning is a huge part of making love songs, but Miller does not have the vocal chops to try and channel Marvin Gaye or Luther Vandross for any sustained period of time.
There are just enough positives to put The Divine Feminine on the right side of average, but the huge step-down down in quality after his career-best LP GO:OD AM is undeniably disheartening. He seemed to be just scratching the surface of his potential as an artist on that record and the comparatively tentative nature and admirable yet misguided vision of The Divine Feminine has temporarily derailed him from reaching it. That being said, it takes some time to adjust to such a rapid, dramatic change in state of mind after spending so much time in a dark place, so it's completely understandable that Miller's first foray into the world of tender love ballads wasn't hugely successful. If Miller is still madly in love with Grande when his next record comes out, I have no doubt that it will be much more cohesive and emotionally-resonant album than The Divine Feminine.