It’s interesting to watch influence in real-time: you could see the hip-hop and R&B artists attempt darker, fuller, more ambitious projects in the wake of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy; likewise, you can see hip-hop and R&B artists becoming more socially conscious in the wake of To Pimp a Butterfly.
The latter seems to be the main inspiration for The Divine Feminine, though Mac Miller’s cares more about pussy than he does the political scene happening around him. In other words, the influence isn’t to do with lyrics, but rather the sonics. This one expands the jazz rap touches of GO:OD AM, nabs Bilal for opener “Congratulations” (whose 2013’s A Love Surreal’s general sound predated To Pimp a Butterfly), grabs Robert Glasper for closer “God is Fair, Sexy Nasty” (Glasper’s resume has mostly been about crossing over from jazz into the mainstream, from covering Radiohead to the collaboration-heavy Miles Davis worship Everything’s Beautiful which included Bilal, to playing keys on To Pimp a Butterfly) and even featuring Kendrick himself on the same song (on a track produced by Tae Beast, a TDE in-house producer), albeit for hook duty.
What results is Mac Miller’s best album, though it’s not his best album simply because of its ambitions – Watching Movies With the Sound Off was ambitious in the way Miller tapped into multiple regional scenes to cater (/pander) to different audiences (Odd Future and Black Hippy’s West Coast; Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles; Clams Casino’s cloud rap). But the result was an album that leaned heavily on its star-power features and producers, and in the middle, a blank canvas of a main attraction. And, in comparison to either that one or GO:OD AM, The Divine Feminine thankfully buckles down into a ten-track, 52-minute album; GO:OD AM’s consistency wore thin over its 17-track, 70-minute runtime.
Of course, Mac Miller being who he is, he can’t help himself from hamming up the thing. There’s the absolute eyeroll of the title of the album to the title of the closer, and, more problematically, certain lyrics that simply don’t make sense however you slice them (or at least, are much less clever than Miller thinks they are). The best/worst example: “Write you letters / It’s only right that right after love, I write my name” on centerpiece “Cinderella.” Elsewhere, he drops “All I really wanna do is procreate” on “God is Fair, Sexy Nasty” which is not how people talk, and is steamrolled right over with more banal cliches (“I’m a Superman, you’ll be my Lois Lane”), to say nothing of the bit where he compares himself to Julius Caesar, seemingly just for a rhyme with the word “Beamer.” Put it this way: even though this is Mac Miller’s least rap-focussed album, he still raps too much on it.
Yet, for the most part, The Divine Feminine survives through its grooves, especially in the first half. There’s the indelible piano line of opener “Congratulations” (which would have benefitted from more Bilal instead of throwing him in as an afterthought) to the thick rhythm and flickers of electric guitar in contrast to the held horns on “Dang!”, where Anderson .Paak continues his quest to be Best New Artist since his breakthrough on 2015’s Compton (“Dang!” is produced by Pomo, who also produced “Am I Wrong?”, a standout from .Paak’s Malibu). Meanwhile, the peppier horns distinguish “Stay”; “Skin” has a saxophone line that’s perfect for soundtracking wandering around late at night while the industrial blasts and backing vocals seem like the internal monologue in Miller’s head. And DJ Dahi powers through the 8-minute “Cinderella” with a bombastic and insistent organ line.
But Miller can’t keep this up: the beat of “Planet God Damn” never coalesces into anything, and the cheap snare sound undermines Njomza’s warm choruses while Dâm-Funk’s busier beat on “Soulmate” seems out of place on the album, and it doesn’t help that that Miller can’t handle the choruses regardless of some female harmonies, or that the track wastes too much time with a sample of Good Will Hunting. That goes ditto for “My Favorite Part,” but that one survives because hearing him and Ariana Grande harmonizing as if they’re slow dancing to the plucked guitars is the realization of the album’s themes: love.
Mac Miller isn’t a good rapper. And he sure as shit can’t carry a note, though he tries to do that a lot on this one. Yet he has a vision of what he wanted this album to sound like and then carried it through with all the right producers and features, which is a talent in itself.