There isn’t another story in all of hip-hop like that of Malcolm McCormick, aka Mac Miller. A wealthy white kid from Pennsylvania with a passion for music, as well as some freestyle prowess, starts releasing mixtapes on the internet while still in high school. He leverages various social media platforms to promote his music, cultivate a fan base, and connect with artists both in Pittsburgh and around the country. In just a few years, he becomes the most successful indie rapper of his generation.
But his music is as critically reviled as it is popular, and Mac pivots from youthful life-is-good anthems to much darker explorations of his tormented inner psyche. This new material polarizes the fan base but is better acclaimed, and he’s co-signed by many highly respected rap artists; he also learns how to make beats and uses that skill to help other up-and-coming musicians advance their platforms. In the course of a few years, Mac signs a multimillion-dollar major label deal, dates one of the most beloved pop stars in the world, and dies from a drug overdose at the age of 26. The Justice Department investigates his death. Great rappers of past and present eras pay tribute. A posthumous album arrives. Mac’s family and friends keep his legacy alive by reissuing his mixtapes and producing documentaries.
No matter what one may have thought of Mac’s body of work, it’s undeniable that he made a massive impact during his far-too-brief life, one that deserves a proper tribute. As I’ve written before, we’ve seen a horrifying rate of rap deaths in recent years. As hip-hop media ossifies and its history gets lost or misremembered, it’s all the more imperative to ensure these dead rappers’ lives and careers are documented properly, through whatever means we have.
It was for this reason that, in late December, I was excited to receive an advance copy of a new biography of Mac Miller, whom I’d been a fan of myself. Written by longtime music journalist Paul Cantor, Most Dope: The Extraordinary Life of Mac Miller purports to be the first full-length journalistic account of Mac’s life, drawing on trips to Pittsburgh as well as interviews with Mac’s close friends, former managers, critics, and fans in order to sketch a complete outline of Mac Miller the human being and creative. When I went to log the book in my Goodreads account, however, I noticed something odd: a bunch of 1-star reviews of Most Dope dated May 7, 2021, far preceding its release date. These reviews pointed to an Instagram post from McCormick’s mother, Karen Meyers, from the same date. Meyers wrote that Most Dope was unauthorized, and that Cantor “was made aware at the outset of the process of writing this book that the family and friends of Malcolm were uncomfortable with him authoring the biography.” She also stated that the book’s release date of Jan. 18, 2022—the day before what would have been Mac’s 30th birthday—made the project appear “exploitative.” The only book authorized by Mac’s estate, Meyers said, was The Book of Mac: Remembering Mac Miller, by music journalist Donna-Claire Chesman. All this followed a post from 2019, in which Meyers had hinted at Cantor’s upcoming book. “There is a writer doing a Mac Miller biography that some of you have been approached about or will be. … We are not participating and prefer you don’t either if you personally knew Malcolm.”
In response, Cantor told Page Six that the family was “made aware of the book at its inception with the utmost best intentions” and “chose to not participate—which I respected.” Cantor likewise stated that he did not himself announce the publication of Most Dope, his first book, “out of respect for the family. … The only people who have ever spoken about my book is them.” Despite the mass Mac fan backlash that ensued across social media platforms following Meyers’ post, Cantor emphasized that “my heart goes out to [Mac’s] family. Nothing that I can say here can heal the pain of losing their son. I carried that with me in every sentence I wrote.”
Such tussles over celebrities’ legacies and histories, whether they involve family preferences or unauthorized biographies or fan rage or attempts to halt journalistic inquiries or all of the above, are not exactly unheard of. But the mess here also points at something deeper: the existential and material connections Mac had with his fans—unique even for an internet-native celebrity—and the singular position he holds in rap history.
“Relatable” might be an overused term, but there’s hardly a better one to describe what led to Mac Miller’s widespread appeal. His earliest mixtapes, like The High Life, embodied an ethos of harmless youthful amusement, staving off ennui by hanging with your friends, celebrating your community, kicking incredibly dope shit. Later projects like Faces laid out Mac’s thoughts of death and his most desperate desires in a shockingly candid manner (“Think I’m living paradise, so would I have to worry ’bout/ dealing with these demons, feel the pressure, find the perfect style”). Many of those who’d dismissed the more party-oriented music of Blue Slide Park were taken in by the wrenching honesty and plaintive vibes of Watching Movies With the Sound Off. Despite the drastic contrast between these two eras, there was a consistent throughline of hoping to achieve something greater than what life had set out for you (“Go and have a food fight, start yourself a new life/ You’re too bright to be inside a bunch of mediocrity”).
What singled Mac Miller out most was his self-awareness: He never pretended to be something he was not. Rather, he was forthright about being a white guy who intensely loved rap music and knew he had the talent and work ethic to make it in the game.* It’s why artists who came from very different circumstances than he did, such as Juicy J and Chief Keef, wanted to work with him.
Plus, it wasn’t just that Mac could connect with both those who loved and hated him—it was how he did so. When I reached out to self-described Macheads online about their bonds with the man, I was stunned by their frankness. They told me things I would probably not be inclined to share with close friends, much less a random journalist. “He saved my life countless times,” Allison Byrd wrote to me on Twitter, “[like] when I was 15 and I heard ‘Clarity’: when Mac said ‘sendin my love for girls who got some cuts at their wrists.’ ” Cody Lee, who helps run the Mac Miller Memoir social media accounts, told me that he regularly receives messages about how much Mac’s music meant to his fans’ lives. “More than anything, I felt Mac Miller,” music journalist Caleb Catlin wrote last year. “He communicated feelings I didn’t fully understand but I comprehended emotionally where he was coming from.”
For many, this wasn’t simply some parasocial relationship: Mac himself personally cultivated close relationships with his listeners. “He interacted with his fans on a daily basis” via his social media, Byrd wrote; it was “a huge part in how close he made us feel to him. My parents didn’t have the ability to tweet their favorite artists growing up or message them on an app.” Marc-André Lauzon from Mac Miller Memoir backed this up: “His relationship with his fan base was incredible.”
“There’s a saying that goes ‘don’t ever meet your heroes, as you’ll usually end up disappointed,’ ” Lee told me. “Anyone who’s had the chance to meet, chat with, or be around Malcolm can tell you that certainly didn’t apply to him. Mac always took the time to make his fans feel comfortable and welcomed.”
It’s moving to hear directly from fans what personal bonds they had with Mac Miller and about the community they formed with one another as a result. Lee told me that the Machead community “has to be one of the most inclusive, loving, and genuine fanbases in music,” and it’s clear that these fans’ attachment to Mac has extended to his whole family, particularly his mother. Still, the fandom hasn’t been totally immune to the same toxic dynamics that characterize other celebrities’ followers. Some harassed Mac’s ex-girlfriend Ariana Grande after his death, even blaming her for it; there are Mac Miller memorial groups on Facebook with strict rules against posting anything about Grande. Other fans went after Pete Davidson, heckling him at shows and spreading false rumors during his brief engagement to Grande. This sort of thing happened even before Mac’s death: In 2012, when the old-school rapper Lord Finesse sued him for sampling “Hip 2 the Game,” Mac took to Twitter to tell his fans, “Don’t be disrespectful.” These kinds of incidents are not unique, of course. But it’s troubling when they repeat themselves, like they did last year against Paul Cantor. One “reviewer” of his book called him “a low life scum who is trying to make money for himself.”
For all the ire, Most Dope hardly reads like a money-grab. Named for Mac’s tight-knit hometown crew, the book’s a broad overview of the rapper’s life, with Cantor recounting everything from the history of the Point Breeze neighborhood Mac was raised in, to his entanglements with adoring fans and harsh critics, to the grim details of his tragic death.* By comparison, October’s The Book of Mac goes through Miller’s discography album by album, with Donna-Claire Chesman providing personal commentary alongside stories from many of the rapper’s friends and collaborators. It’s certainly an interesting read that gets into the core of Mac’s appeal—the personal connection—but it’s difficult to view it as the definitive work on Mac’s life. Yet The Book of Mac was the work announced formally by the family estate, something all the Mac fans I spoke to made sure to remind me. (“I will never buy a copy of that book,” Allison Byrd said.) Still, if what they appreciated about Mac’s music was his honesty, why would they resist a biography that attempts to tell an honest, reported story about the artist himself?
This does not apply universally, of course. Cantor did speak with many people from Mac’s close circle—Benjy Grinberg, Arthur Pitt, and more—for Most Dope. If you look at the book’s Goodreads page now that it’s actually out, you’ll find some higher ratings in addition to the 1-star bombs. “I was skeptical but honestly … it’s exactly what I was looking for in a biography of such a beloved star,” one reviewer wrote last month. “I am one of the biggest Mac Miller fans on planet earth. I have three Mac tattoos,” a different review reads. “I thought this book was gonna hella sketch [before] I opened it up. Then I’m reading it and I’m like nah this is not at all what I thought it was gonna be, its high key amazing.” A November thread on the Mac Miller subreddit about The Book of Mac, meanwhile, included some readers who were left “disappointed” by it, with the original poster stating: “This ain’t no damn book about Mac. It’s a book about a fan and her thoughts and feelings about Mac.”
I have been familiar with both Chesman’s and Cantor’s work for years, and I do not wish to cast aspersions on either. As a Mac fan, I simply feel uneasy about how the worthy goal of documenting the man’s life has played out. One of the most striking stories from Cantor’s book relates how Mac Miller dealt with an acrid reviewer: When Jordan Sargent gave Blue Slide Park a scathing review in Pitchfork, Mac took it to heart and resolved to make his music better. He reached out to Sargent to give him a glimpse into the process for his following album, Watching Movies With the Sound Off. Sargent was reportedly charmed by Mac’s kindness and drive to improve, and he would later give Watching Movies a more positive evaluation. Most Dope cannot be described as anything akin to that Blue Slide Park review—it’s a thorough overview that also delves into the uglier sides of Mac’s life, from the heavy drug use, to his dating troubles, to his misdeeds as a youngster, all things Mac openly waxed on in his music and interviews. It’s an imperfect but worthy tribute, an ultimately tender profile. My feeling is that Mac himself would have wanted to engage with anyone writing a book on his life, whether a personal reflection like Chesman’s or a broader outlook like Cantor’s. I hope other fans can start to feel the same way.
Correction, Feb. 1, 2022: This piece originally misstated that Mac Miller grew up in Pittsburgh’s suburbs. He grew up within city limits.