When Mac Miller dropped his fifth studio albumSwimmingin August 2018, complete with industruty-shattering singlesWhat’s the UseandSelf Care, he shared an intimate tale of personal and professional growth with the world. Debuting at number three on The Billboard 200 and with a 26 city tour on the horizon,Swimming’ssuccess attested to Mac’s thriving mental state, one previously plagued by depression and addiction.
As a self-taught guitarist, drummer, bassist, and pianist, Mac’s musical intuition was evident from an early age. With a multitude of mixtapes under his belt, most notablyK.I.D.S.(2010) andBest Day Ever(2011),followed by six studio albums, the Pittsburgh native established himself as an essential asset to the ever-evolving rap game. As Mac’s popularity soared, his easy-going “frat rap” transformed into unconventional, jazz-inspired ballads that delved into his struggles with mental illness.Swimmingfeatured 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. Similarly, “2009” describes the internalized wisdom Mac gained from confronting the demons of his past. Mac’s introspective lyrics coupled with his fearless vulnerability created a personable honesty in his music that set him apart from other rappers.
But just a mere one month and four days afterSwimmingdropped, the illusion of renewal and rehabilitation suddenly shattered when Mac Miller died from an accidental opioid overdose. When we lost Mac Miller to an accidental overdose, we lost a source of lyrical genius, championed talent, and immense potential. When a musician dies unexpectedly, we are left reconciling with an enormous void that simply can’t be filled with remnants of their art. As fans, we mourn their lives, yearn for their talent, and ruminate on the benevolence of their legacy. As the world reckoned with the death of a beloved musician, Americans dually reflected on the far reaching implications of the country’s ongoing opioid crisis.
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. Big pharma has major blood on its hands: approximately 130 Americans’ blood every single day (“Opioid Crisis Fast Facts,” 2020). 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), profiteering mustn’t overshadow the sheer magnitude of the opioid crisis any longer.
The toxicology report following Mac Miller’s death detected cocaine, alcohol, and fentanyl in his system. In 2019, prosecutors charged three men with selling the drugs responsible for Mac’s 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 circumstantially prescribed in high-pain situations. But oftentimes, it is illegally produced and added to other opioids as cheap means to increase potency. Elicit traces of fentanyl increases the risk of drug overdose by tenfold. When it comes to fentanyl, high profile celebrities face the same risk of fatality as the average addict: no money nor resources can truly assure the quality of unregulated opioids.
Fentanyl started wreaking havoc gradually over the last 30 some years as the American healthcare system obsessively fixated on pain management. The opioid crisis constitutes abuse of prescription opioids, fentanyl, and heroin (Rummans et. al., 2018). Prescription opioids were originally developed to target severe and terminal pain, but when government agencies began reimbursing physicians based 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 created an inevitable cycle of misuse and addiction.
There were many interconnected industries at play perpetuating the opioid epidemic at its inception. Physicians wrote larger prescriptions of painkillers to avoid frequent refill requests, thus improving patient satisfaction (Rummans et. al., 2018). Insurance companies charged less for prescriptions with higher pill quantities to reduce medication costs (Rummans et. al., 2018). But it was one pharmaceutical company’s profit-seeking behavior that led physicians and insurance companies in this detrimental direction.
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, mass-marketing OxyContin widened Purdue’s profit margins at the expense of thousands of American lives.
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 (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 alternatives such as heroin and fentanyl. Around one fifth of the two million adults who abuse opioids are uninsured (Orgera and Tolbert, 2019). Without access to prescription drugs from physicians, uninsured individuals are more likely to turn to the unregulated, blackmarket drugs that increase the likelihood of overdose and fatality. And with limited access to addiction treatment and rehabilitation, the cycle only worsens for uninsured addicts.
Isolating opioid addicts to one demographic creates a dangerously aloof mindset for occasional users. When the U.S. makes up 80% of the world’s opioid consumers, we must shift our perception of opioid users away from an “us versus them” mentality (Rummans et. al., 2018). When a public figure fatally overdoses, their opioid-related deaths draw more widespread attention to the crisis. All the while, the average American’s opioid-related trauma remains silenced against the United State’s capitalistic priorities. The opioid epidemic disproportionately affects working class, rural communities (Rummans et. al., 2018) but without the media attention about a celebrity death, the average opioid addict fights an abysmal battle with little public support.
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. When we lost Mac Miller to an accidental overdose, we lost a source of lyrical genius, championed talent, and immense potential. Mac’s death publicized the ruthless reality of the unforgiving opioid epidemic; no matter who you are, experimenting with unregulated opioids is akin to playing with fire. And although his premature passing froze Mac’s legacy in time, his unique style and inspiring persona continue influencing the music industry.
From receiving a posthumous Grammy nomination for best rap album of 2019, to dropping his last studio albumCirclesone 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 toSwimming,speaks to the metaphor of “swimming in circles.” This metaphor 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.