c/o milo

c/o milo

“Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes,” raps Nasir Jones on his debut album “Illmatic,” considered, by many, the best hip-hop album ever recorded. Extolling the artistic value of his music, Nas advises his listener to never put his catalogue in a boombox that might damage it. “Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes,” raps Maine-based independent rapper milo on his most recent record “budding ornithologists are weary of tired analogies.”

Invoking Nas’ immense pride in rap music, milo basks in the greatness of hip-hop poetics. He repeats the line again, and suddenly the box isn’t just a boombox, it’s any box at all. He repeats it a third time, and the words start to blur together, sounding like “Never put me in your box if you share these tapes.”

This slight revision of Nas’ classic punchline heightens the stakes of the assertion. Instead of just boasting of his artistic brilliance, milo emphatically states that no listener should seek to reduce the complex meaning of his art. Milo demands unfiltered, liberated ears, ready to digest a motley, demanding collection of rap music. If one is ready for such a task, then “budding ornithologists” awaits.

Ornithology, in this case, does not reference the academic study of birds, but instead the revolutionary musical styles of bebop saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, who, alongside bandmates Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillepsie, changed jazz forever with his intricate harmonies and unmatched precision. Although milo is certainly not the first MC to pay homage to these greats (Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, and Black Star, to name a few), his uncompromising, free-form style may come closest to Parker’s belief that once you master your musicraft, you must “forget all that bullshit and just play.”

Although milo has surveyed this anarchistic approach to songcraft, especially on records under his self-produced alias Scallops Hotel, he has never explored iconoclasm with such depth and intensity. From the beats to the verses, skits to hooks, “budding ornithologists” defies expectation and eludes nomination. The results of this experimentation can be thrilling. On first single “stet,” milo flirts with the boastful narratives of ’90s boom-bap before flipping these stylings against any hip-hop traditionalists. One moment he’s elevating his favorite brand of rolling papers (“I like the orange box of zig-zags/Handled your album like a useless knick-knack”) and the next he’s setting himself in opposition to the commercial rap archetypes of the radio (I stare down an oncoming rapper in an escalade / like I’m Theaster Gates getting paid for a performance art piece). The Jefferson Park Boys, made up of longtime milo producers Kenny Segal, Mr. Carmack, and Mike Parvizi, handle production on the song, supplementing milo’s lyrical subversion with a muted trumpet that pops up halfway through the song and a sticky bass loop.

The song recalls the peaks of milo’s recent projects, “sovereign nose of your arrogant face” (released as “scallops hotel”) and “who told you to think?!!!??!”

Milo’s poetic flow floats over the jazzy, off-beat production, echoing the hook of “who told you to think?!!!??!’s” lead single “sorceror”: “When suffering was normalized, I flourished in the lag time.”

His lyrical deconstruction of golden-era rap feels effortless and devotional, mirroring the wordplay on “sovereign nose” highlight “Temple in the Green” (“She play forte, I accompany pianissimo/Borges with a greasy flow”). On songs like “stet,” where milo plays to his strengths as a poetic and rhythmic chameleon, his confidence and self-awareness shine. He knows when to make a heady allusion to a poet, when to drop an easy punchline that will make you snicker, and when to repeat a mantra until the lyrics meld with the instrumentation. During these highlights, milo feels like a direct descendant and peer of Ishmael Butler (of Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces), another MC who mixes philosophical musings, jazzy production, and infectious mantra to create a precise style. Milo has referenced Ish’s music before (“In a palace bumping Shabazz Palaces” on 2015’s “@yomilo”), but “budding ornithologists” bebop production and nonconformist outlook suggests that their artistic kinship may be far more intimate than previously imagined.

But, somewhat similar to Ish on Shabazz’s “Quazarz” albums of last year, milo can sometimes lose the mixture of levity and severity that makes his work so enchanting in pursuit of his grand vision. Some of milo’s best tracks, like “an encyclopedia,” off 2015’s album “so the flies don’t come,” resonate so deeply due to their careful balance of the comic and the tragic. When milo finishes his last “encyclopedia” verse with “We, Urban Outfitters, would like to make a t-shirt out of your just-born soliloquy,” the line hits so hard because it critiques such appropriation with piercing, sardonic wit. Although milo sounds just as urgent on “budding ornithologists,” his critiques often register as cold derision, rather than animated satire. On songs like “thinking while eating a handful of almonds,” milo sounds ready to retreat from the spotlight of independent rap, rapping “It’s him who thought ‘oh well’ in regards to life’s entirety.” In contrast with Brooklyn rapper Elucid’s verse at the end of the song, which oozes with inspired critique in just eight bars (“My black ark is parked where Amy Schumer isn’t targeted marketing”), milo sounds jaded or, at the very least, “weary.” Although milo is many years younger than Elucid, he seems to be passing the torch of independent rap to his collaborator, whose 2018 has already included an excellent mini-LP (“Shit Don’t Rhyme No More”), a joint album with milo (“Nostrum Grocers”), and most recently, a riveting collab album with fellow Brooklyn rapper Billy Woods (“Parrafin”).

Nearing the end of “budding ornithologists” milo samples a visual artist, Reggie Baylor, who proposes that an “inconsistent” artist, who could make hundreds of works and have “none of them look alike” may be just as good as a consistent artist.

The statement again recalls themes of bebop and ornithology. As Charlie Parker once said, “They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.”

Although “budding ornithologists” may belabor the point, at its essence, it achieves the subversion it seeks, defying any reductive description one may put on it. The album is varied and monotonous, inventive and arduous, formidable in its commitment to iconoclasm. Before one can process the album at its end, milo states “I am not what you suppose, but far different/Therefore, release me now/Before troubling yourself further.” As he walks away from his studio, the listener has no choice but to adhere to his demands knowing that, just like Parker, milo has flown the coop.  


Nick Byers can be reached at nbyers@wesleyan.edu.

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