Updated: Sep 14
By Nikki Cohen
When Mac Miller dropped his fifth studio album Swimming in August 2018, complete with industruty-shattering singles such as What’s the Use and Self Care, he shared an intimate tale of personal and professional growth with his fans. Debuting at number three on the Billboard 200 albums chart and with a 26 city tour on the horizon, Mac’s success reflected his thriving mental state that had been previously plagued by depression and addiction. As a self-taught guitar, drums, bass, and piano player, Mac’s musical intuition was evident from an early age. With a multitude of mixtapes under his belt, most notably K.I.D.S. (2010) and Best Day Ever (2011), followed by six studio albums, the Pittsburgh native established himself as an essential asset to the ever-evolving rap game. Throughout Mac’s rise to fame, his easy-going “frat rap” transformed into unconventional, jazz-inspired ballads that touched on issues such as addiction and mental health. Mac’s introspective lyrics coupled with his fearless vulnerability created a personable honesty in his music that set him apart from traditional rappers. Swimming featured an abundance of truthful tunes: setting the tone of the album with a cathartic rendition of Come Back to Earth, Mac comments on his turbulent journey to self-acceptance and personal liberation. Similarly, 2009 touches on the wisdom Mac internalized after confronting the demons of his past.
This motif of rebirth, in an album titled Swimming nonetheless, was suddenly shattered a mere one month and four days after its release. When we lost Mac Miller to an accidental overdose, we lost a source of lyrical genius, championed talent, and immense potential. Musicians are public servants who drive culture forward. And so when a musician dies unexpectedly, we are left reconciling with an enormous, incomplete void that simply can’t be filled with remnants of their art. As fans, we mourn their past, yearn for their talent, and ruminate on the benevolent gifts of their legacy.
From music legends like Prince and Tom Petty, to up-and-coming talent like 21 year old rapper Juice Wrld, opioid-related deaths loom around the 21st century music industry like a dark storm cloud. Losing yet another public figure to an opioid overdose reiterates the sinister nature of America’s opioid epidemic: it does not spare anyone. Not you, not me, not even Mac Miller. When it is statistically more likely for an American to die from an accidental opioid overdose than to die in a car crash (Flower and Senthiilingam, 2019), the sheer magnitude of the opioid crisis can no longer be overshadowed by profiteering. Big pharma has major blood on their hands- approximately 130 Americans’ blood every single day (“CNN”, 2020)- and this fact must be used to hold corporations accountable for prioritizing profits over personhood.
The toxicology report following Mac Miller’s death presented cocaine, alcohol, and fentanyl in his system. In 2019, prosecutors charged three men with selling the drugs that supposedly lead to his death, including counterfeit oxycodone that contained traces of fentanyl (Blistein, 2019). Fentanyl, a painkiller that can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine, is a synthetic agent that can be prescribed responsibility in high pain situations. But oftentimes, it is illegally produced and added to other opioids as a cheap way to increase potency. Elicit traces of fentanyl in drugs increases the risk of overdose by tenfold.
Fentanyl did not not start wreaking havoc out of the blue; the American healthcare system’s fixation on pain management has led us down a dangerous path over the last 30 some years. The opioid crisis constitutes abuse of prescription opioids, such as codeine, morphine and fentanyl, and non-prescription opioids such as heroin and illegally produced opioids containing traces of fentanyl (Rummans et. al., 2018). Prescription opioids were originally developed to target severe and terminal pain. But when government agency reimbursements became dependent on patient-reported perceptions of pain, physicians were more inclined to prescribe opioids where they were not historically intended (Rummans et. al., 2018). With opioids’ highly addictive nature, the overprescription of these drugs led to an inevitable cycle of misuse and addiction.
There are many interconnected industries at play in the opioid epidemic: physicians wrote larger prescriptions of painkillers not only for reimbursement opportunities, but with the unfortunate but good intention of avoiding refill requests, thus improving patient satisfaction (Rummans et. al., 2018). Similarly, insurance companies charged less for prescriptions with higher pill quantities to reduce medication costs (Rummans et. al., 2018). There is one industry in particular whose profit-seeking intentions led physicians and insurance companies in this detrimental direction: all fingers point to pharmaceutical companies. In 1995, Purdue Pharma produced OxyContin, a sustained-released type of oxycodone with an extremely addictive nature. Purdue Pharma began mass marketing the drug to primary care physicians, placing an emphasis on its “lack of side effects”. Between 1997 and 2002, OxyContin prescriptions increased from 670,000 to 6.2 million. And from 1996 to 2000, Purdue Pharma sales increased from $48 million to $1.1 billion (Rummans et. al., 2018). Patient pain did not universally increase in the late 1990s. Instead, these startling statistics demonstrate big pharma’s incentive of mass marketing OxyContin to widen its profit margins.
The spike in opioid prescriptions at the turn of the century was met with dangerous implications: between 1999 and 2014, drug overdose related deaths nearly tripled. And since 1999, US life expectancy uncoincidentally began dropping (Rummans et. al., 2018). Since 2016, drug overdose deaths reported in the US have hovered around 60,000 deaths a year, and an equal amount of prescription and illegal opioids account for a large majority (Rummans et. al., 2018). Around 80% of opioid users report prescription opioids as the trigger of their addiction (Rummans et. al., 2018). When addicts run out of prescription drugs, it is not uncommon to turn to the streets for cheaper and readily available opioids such as heroin and fentanyl. The unregulated nature of blackmarket drugs increase the likelihood of overdose and fatality.
Although the opioid epidemic has disproportionately affected working class, rural communities, the crisis does not discriminate against any demographic (Rummans et. al., 2018). Isolating opioid addicts to one demographic creates a dangerously aloof mindset for occasional users. When the US makes up 80% of the world’s opioid consumers, we must shift our perception of opioid users away from an “us versus them” mindset (Rummans et. al., 2018). The harsh reality is that there is fatal risk with every use, and Mac Miller’s overdose makes this abundantly clear. Although Mac Miller’s premature passing froze his legacy in time, his unique style and inspiring persona continue to influence the music industry. From receiving a posthumous Grammy nomination for best rap album of 2019, to dropping his last studio album Circles one year and four months after his death, Mac Miller epitomizes what it means to be gone but never forgotten. Circles, intended to be a complement album to Swimming, speaks to the metaphor of “swimming in circles”. This motif emphasizes the repetitive cycle of addiction and relapse, but also echoes themes of transcendence as it marks Mac’s career coming to a bittersweet, full circle.
Blistein, Jon. “Mac Miller: Three Men Officially Charged in Connection with Rapper's
Death.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 3 Oct. 2019, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/mac-miller-three-men-charged-death-894091/.
Flower, Kevin, and Meera Senthilingam. “More People Likely to Die from an Opioid Overdose than a Car Accident in the US.” CNN, Cable News Network, 14 Jan. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/01/14/health/opioid-deaths-united-states-surpass-road-accidents/index.html.
“Opioid Crisis Fast Facts.” CNN, Cable News Network, 21 June 2020, www.cnn.com/2017/09/18/health/opioid-crisis-fast-facts/index.html.
Rummans, Teresa A., et al. “How Good Intentions Contributed to Bad Outcomes: The Opioid Crisis.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, vol. 93, no. 3, 1 Mar. 2018, pp. 344–350.,