“The reason Miller’s mass of fans follow him is not because of his music,” read a takedown of McCormick’s first album on the music site Pitchfork. “It’s because he looks just like them, because they can see themselves up on the stage behind him.” Calling it “crushingly bland,” the reviewer rated the album a 1 out of 10 — the harshest of several pans. “Malcolm was distraught,” Cantor writes. Never mind that the record went to No. 1 on the charts.
In “rejecting not only Malcolm’s music, but the very idea of Malcolm himself,” Cantor argues, the Pitchfork review identified a fundamental dilemma for McCormick. Artists sell because of something special in their work, or because they themselves are something special that audiences want to become. The best manage both, but ultimately, mediocrity is no foil to fantasy.
McCormick chose to get better, and did. His beats turned more complex, his lyrics more unsettling. Even his cadences changed, taking on a lilt and mumble here, a songwriter’s soulfulness there. He was a “serious student of hip-hop” who absorbed classics — Big L (dead at 24) was one lodestar — but his ear for innovation, plus a newfound dark streak, led to what one critic deemed “a quantum leap in artistry.” In fact, Cantor makes a fairly persuasive case that for all of McCormick’s later success, he was actually underrated, or at least underestimated, his whiteness an albatross that constantly made him suspect.
Smoldering beneath his talents was a mean drug habit. Fondness for weed became a taste for lean (prescription cough syrup and soda), then pills; and Cantor, playing up the tragic flaw, is wearyingly fixated on the subject throughout a repetitive book, in which whole chapters can drift by without much new information. Yet we learn almost nothing about the circumstances around his death (bedroom, fentanyl), or its larger context.
McCormick died in an extraordinary year for hip-hop. Rolling Stone called 2018 a “changing of the guard,” in which virtually every notable rapper released a major project, but rising stars often eclipsed veterans. All the more devastating, then, that McCormick’s passing came weeks after he released what Cantor rightly calls his best album, “Swimming,” and that the tragedy was diffused by others before and after: XXXTentacion (dead at 20), Nipsey Hussle (33), Juice Wrld (21), Pop Smoke (20).