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As Mac Miller gained fame, the confessional rapper kept ties to the underground scene that lifted him up

As Mac Miller gained fame, the confessional rapper kept ties to the underground scene that lifted him up
Mac Miller at Coachella in 2017. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Mac Miller, the rapper whose confessional, introspective albums topped the Billboard charts and made him a favorite of pop and the underground alike, has died. He was 26.

On Friday, authorities responded to a 911 call reporting a suspected drug overdose at Miller’s San Fernando Valley home around noon. Miller was pronounced dead at the scene.

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Miller, born Malcolm James McCormick, was a rare figure in contemporary hip-hop, equally comfortable accompanying major pop acts and hard-edged hip-hop peers while crafting his own chart-topping, conceptual LPs that often confronted his drug use and depression.

Miller, who grew up in Pittsburgh, vaulted to fame in 2011 with the release of his debut studio LP, “Blue Slide Park,” which topped the Billboard album charts — the first independently released debut to do so in more than 15 years.

The album made him a pop star, and he collaborated with mainstream acts like Maroon 5 and his former girlfriend Ariana Grande.

But he never lost his connections and credibility in underground hip-hop. He produced tracks (under the name Larry Fisherman) and collaborated on records with respected MCs like Earl Sweatshirt, Schoolboy Q and Vince Staples. As Miller’s career advanced and vision grew, his subsequent work turned more complex and vulnerable.

On his 2014 mixtape “Faces,” Miller rapped with disarming candor about his substance abuse issues. “I give no ... when I go nuts / Cause I smoke dust, overdosed on the sofa, dead” he sang on “Polo Jeans,” adding “just went through a half-ounce of coke / Blood pouring all out my nose / Don’t tell my mom I got a drug problem.”

Miller’s substance abuse issues remained a burden throughout his career’s ascent, however. In May, Miller was arrested and charged with DUI after crashing his car. Grande asked him on Twitter to “Pls take care of yourself” after his arrest.

But while even younger acts like Lil Peep and XXXTentacion made a bleak universe out of their addictions and depression, Miller’s recent work often sparkled with inventiveness and optimism as well. His 2016 album “The Divine Feminine” showcased his growing ambitions as a vocalist and his curiosity as a lyricist.

His skills as a producer and arranger were sharpening, with Miller writing his own brass arrangements and playing a variety of instruments on his records. He wrote and arranged alongside jazz virtuoso Thundercat, superproducers Jon Brion and Flying Lotus and pop-R&B hero Devonte Hynes.

Yet he struggled with his perception as an artist spiraling out of control. In a profile in New York Magazine published days before his death, Miller said that “it just seems exhausting to always be battling something … to always be battling for what you think your image is supposed to be. You’re never going to be able to get anything across. It’s never gonna be the real … No one’s gonna ever really know me.”

His most recent album, “Swimming,” was released to positive reviews on Aug. 3. On his hit “Self Care” from that album, he addressed his addictions and arrest with uncommon gentleness. “It must be nice up above the lights / And what a lovely life that I made, yeah / I know that feelin' like it's in my family tree, yeah…Tell them they can take that b- elsewhere / Self care, we gonna be good.”

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