Sailing the River Styx with Hip-Hop Shaman milo
milo is an art-house MC who savors the magic of the middle-class, refraining from helipads and bottle service in favor of video games and stewed tomatoes.
budding ornithologists grow weary of tired analogies
21 September 2018
Rory Ferreira is not your average rapper with an uncombed beard and a dog-eared dictionary. Seven years into his music career, Maine native Ferreira can already list 11 albums to his name along with a host of aliases: Scallops Hotel, Black Orpheus, and the green horse of rap. But his fan base knows him best as milo, an undercased alias with an oversized intellect. Our inner kid relates: our favorite gifts conceal wonders beneath unlikely wrappers (pun unintended). In milo's case, a humble typeface reveals "little aphorisms and landmines to burst your mind out of the mundane". It is a mission worthy of collateral.
milo is an art-house MC who prefers rubies over gold chains, sailboats over Ferraris. Ferreira claims he named his label Ruby Yacht after his great-grandmother Ruby Underwood; as usual, irony abounds here, as it does with his lyrics since the title also references a series in the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon. Blending the sentimental with the fantastic, milo sidesteps hip-hop's top-40 lineage. Instead of charting a rise from the housing projects to the penthouse, he savors the magic of the middle-class, refraining from helipads and bottle service in favor of video games and stewed tomatoes.
His latest album, the voluminously-titled budding ornithologists are weary of tired analogies, takes a page (okay, maybe a couple) from modernist poets like e.e. cummings. Finding equality in lower-casing is one trait, but beyond the surface script lies pop culture imagery tangled in language thistles. On the opening track, "if you're not a myth, whose reality are you?", milo raps over spiritual jazz chords, comparing himself to an unedited version of poet and activist Langston Hughes. The simile lingers like a mantra as if editing would taint the stream of consciousness which feeds his work.
milo finger paints with language, smearing lines across the palate. Buoyed by breezy beats, his word sketches seep between leaps of abstraction. The samples on budding ornithologist dig deep from crates of vinyl: blues guitar riffs shimmy through "tiptoe"; vibraphone wobbles creamy jazz on "romulan ale"; and "stet" features a brass section funky enough to leave one giddy. The soulful samples provide a lush backdrop for lyrical references from Melville to the Bible; from Lord of the Rings to Jacques Lacan. Throughout it all, milo's aqueous wordplay still exudes the kind of warmth that a stranger on the street might solicit for bus fare.
When not expounding his ongoing saga, boasts and syllabic workouts abound. On "mythbuilding exercise no.9", milo casts a spell of immunity on himself: "There ain't another rapper that can harm me"; it is not that he is untouchable; it is rather that his peers are speechless, serving only placebos and makeshift poison. Brag notwithstanding, only the closing track, "sanssouci palace (4 years later)", wields the mic as more than a blunt object, rousing itself from bed-headed nonchalance to ragged passion.
Elsewhere, on "pure scientific intelligence (quantum)" and "thinking while eating a handful of almonds", guest verses fizzle despite ample runway, running higher on attitude than altitude. (It can be difficult to navigate when their ringleader is finger painting ad-hoc mysticisms.) Sometimes tracking milo's rhymes can feel like herding a kid in a candy shop. Fortunately, one can still gorge on lyrics stretched like taffy into fractal patterns, poetry doubling as music.
For many milo fans, so the flies don't come remains his pinnacle, a looming albatross to hurdle. Darkly relevant, it engages life in the 21st century as a black artist. But while so the flies don't come fuses introspections with social commentary, budding ornithologists eludes such depths of purpose, relying, instead, upon lyrical glitz and samples spliced for toe-tapping pleasure. Its boldest track comes towards the end, "the esteemed saboteur reggie baylor hosts an evening at the scallops hotel" is reduced to only an elevator tune which drives samples from a lecture by the invoked painter. Baylor's reflections become a life-affirming metaphor for milo's own worldview: a place where art serves as a universal balm.
For an artist embodying a creative process which, as Reggie Baylor described, is "consistently inconsistently aesthetically relevant", recognizing the dirt that needs cleaning, personally and collectively, is the first step in guarding against insularity. milo excels when striking chords of color in everyday observations. He has commented recently about maturing the theme of his music from adventure to experience. Until the transformation is complete, it is up to us to find some meaning behind his words; it is up to milo to find some meaning ahead of them. Until then, our patience persists, because, like milo confides in a closing line: "if my light shine dimly / it still shines."
What is next for the green horse of rap? His home bases are many; his release schedule tireless. Milo is hardly done reinventing himself. And he is certainly not done self-branding. To transform oneself through art will involve a good deal of magic, indeed. However, to transform the world through art will involve more than verbal sorcery, it will require a commitment of purpose which one cannot force or indulge. While the world may be Milo's oyster, every mollusk requires cleaning. May the urban shaman continue haggling with the briny oyster of life; may he never settle for less than the whole of it.