A thing you need to understand about Pittsburgh is that, around these here parts, one’s regional identity is inextricably linked to their sense of self, almost as if their DNA is composed of black- and-gold nucleotides. There is joy in being a Pittsburgher, especially a native Pittsburgher. If you’ve ever visited Disney World, or Las Vegas, or Times Square, or anywhere, you’ve seen Pittsburghers. They’re never hard to find; they’re the ones proudly displaying garb festooned with Steelers or Penguins logos or the local area code. This — the insatiable desire to full-throatedly announce their allegiances and geographical circumstances to passersby — isn’t the result of egotism or snobbishness or self-aggrandizement, but rather sincere, emphatic pride.
For Pittsburgh, its sports teams represent an overflowing font of pride. Pittsburgh, compared to most urban centers in the US, is relatively small, which makes it kinda hard to be, well, known for anything. LA is the city of stars. New York is the city of lights. Cincinnati is the city of eating diarrhea chili. Pittsburgh is the city of champions.
Of the 43 US cities with major professional sports teams (MLB, NBA, NHL, or NFL teams), Pittsburgh ranks 7th with 18 total championships, behind only New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, all of whom, unlike Pittsburgh, have at least four teams. Despite Pittsburgh reinventing itself as a hub for innovation in technology and healthcare, its citizenry remains decidedly proletariat — thus, counting championships is the ultimate trump card for a chip-on-the-shoulder populace fiercely defensive of its homeland.
At the beginning of this decade, Pittsburgh was gifted with yet another badge of honor; namely, a pair local rappers who began to gain widespread acclaim. Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller were going to be the Next Big Things in rap.
Mac Miller, born Malcolm James McCormick, died Friday of an apparent overdose. He was 26. His death comes on the heels of his fifth studio release, the critically-extolled and commercially-successful Swimming and only months before he was set to embark on a nationwide tour, which included a November 24th homecoming at the Petersen Events Center on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus. As someone who, as a youngin’, listened to mixtapes and singles that Mac created when he was still a student at Taylor Allderdice High School, this one hurts a lot.
At the risk of sounding like I’m writing a Pitchfork blog, Miller was famous throughout Pittsburgh and underground rap circles long before anyone at Complex or Rolling Stone had any idea who he was. By 2011, when Miller released Blue Slide Park, his first studio album, he already had five neatly-curated mixtapes to his name, including 2009’s The High Life, 2010’s K.I.D.S., and 2011’s Best Day Ever, whose braggadocious lead single, “Donald Trump” (yeah, that one did not age well) helped thrust Miller into the mainstream. With the release BSP, though, Miller kept the spotlight shone on himself—and, by extension, the city of Pittsburgh. In fact, BSP’s title itself refers to a playground within Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, and its track list is speckled with terminology and references — Frick Park Market is a real place and Fifth Avenue runs through Oakland — that only true Pittsburghers like Miller would understand.
While the fanfare, radio play, and album sales that came along with BSP waned in the years that followed its release, critics and rap aficionados alike have held and continue to hold each of Miller’s four subsequent studio albums in particularly high regard, and each of these releases has charted well. Bold and innovative, Miller had a knack for escaping his own comfort zone, broadening his artistry by writing deeper, more personal lyrics, and experimenting with different musical styles, incorporating elements of soul, funk, and classical music into his productions (seriously, clear 17 minutes from your schedule and watch Miller’s Tiny Desk Concert on NPR). He luxuriated in unconventionality. The aforementioned video features him rapping over a string quartet, for goodness sake.
At this point, if you’re wondering what any of this has to do with the Pittsburgh Steelers, fear not, because here’s the connection: Miller, like any born-and-bred yinzer, loved the Steelers, and the Steelers loved him back. Le’Veon Bell, who has maintained radio silence on social media since all of that started tweeted the following.
NOOO! I do not wanna believe my brother is dead! I cannot take this anymore, life is too short...I just know you’re now in a better place now than this place we call Earth @MacMiller ...I love you bro, and will miss youu— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) September 7, 2018
(I would not recommend clicking the replies on that, by the way.)
I’ve been to at least a handful of games at which Miller has been asked to do the pre-game towel twirl (or whatever you wanna call it) — all of which he’s led with rampant and unrestrained enthusiasm. I’m gonna miss seeing it.
Mac Miller, like the Steelers, was something Pittsburghers could be proud of. Here was this young, homegrown talent—a white, Jewish performer in a musical subculture in which white, Jewish performers are not particularly ubiquitous—selling out concerts and having his albums written about favorably in the pages of Complex, and Rolling Stone, and whatever other national music publications failed to notice him when he was still churning out mixtapes. Here was a local dude who looked like most of the 26-year-olds in the city of Pittsburgh romantically linked to Ariana Grande, a global megastar in her own right. Here was someone relatable, someone deeply and inherently flawed but honest and brave enough to expose the very depths of his soul to the world through his songwriting. Here was someone who, like most Pittsburghers, wore his regional identity on his sleeve (or on his hat, or on his shirt, or around his neck—Mac loved being a Pittsburgher).
Here was someone whose face could emblazon a t-shirt you’d proudly wear during a trip to Disney World. Mac Miller was ours. And he was taken away from us too soon.
I’m going to likely spend the remainder of this weekend (and next week) listening to his entire discography, regretting that Swimming, a remarkable album, punctuated what was too short of a career and too short of a life. If you’re not particularly fond of rap music, then I’d simply encourage you to check up on a friend.
Rest in peace, Mac Miller.