Monday, November 7, 2011

ALBUM REVIEW: Milo - I wish my brother Rob was here

Hey internet. Austin here.

To me, relatability has never really seemed like an important part of hip-hop music, or at least to my enjoyment of hip-hop music. I mean relatability in the way that people find a home in albums like Pinkerton or Meat is Murder. Music that they relate to their life experiences, and love for that reason. Now I'm a very, very white 16 year old from a very, very suburban town. I don't sell drugs and I'm a very pacifistic person, but I can enjoy a Wu Tang album just as much as the next guy. I like hip-hop a lot, but I always admired it more from a distance. I dug a lot of the technical skill, clever word play, and interesting beats. I couldn't, however, sympathize with most of the lyrical content, I just liked it because of the fact that I'm a music nerd, and I'll listen to and enjoy anything you put in front of me. I was fine with that. I could find relatability in the Smiths and Pinkerton like every other "sensitive guy". Leave hip-hop for playtime, it's built on ego-centric characters, exaggerated personalities, and worshiping excess and violence and misogyny. I'll take my depressive folk crooners, thank you very much. It was a position I held pretty firmly to. But then I listened to a certain rapper who changed a lot of my perceptions on emotion and relatability in rap.

Meet Milo. Milo is a skinny, bespectacled, mustachioed geek. Milo plays a lot of Diablo II. Milo reads Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace. Milo loves Ghostbusters and he watches The Wire and Tim and Eric. Milo isn't very good socially, and he takes a fairly dim view of the people who surround him on a daily basis. Milo wants to be a writer, and own an orchard one day. Milo is not very good at impressing women. Because there aren't a lot of people who can relate to Milo, he joins internet forums and spends large quantities of time there. Does this person sound familiar at all? It should if you know me even the slightest bit, because that is an eerily accurate description of me. Eerily. And this is why Milo challenged a lot of my perceptions about rap: I could relate to him. A lot. Way more than Morrissey or Jeff Mangum or Nick Drake or any other folksy singer/songwriter you care to name. I've spent more time with Felix Hoenikker and Hal Incandenza than I have with most of my extended family. I have every episode of Tim and Eric committed to memory, and The Wire is fast becoming that way. I'm an awkward guy, and I tend to think most people I go to school with are some of the stupidest people to walk this big, dumb earth. I too want to be a writer. I don't know about having an orchard, but it certainly doesn't seem like an unpleasant future. I don't have a girlfriend. And this blog, the one you're currently reading? It was started on a forum. Where I spend a lot of my time.

This album hit home in a way that I really wasn't expecting. Like I said before, rap is usually not the music that inspires emotion. And I'm a dense enough guy that I'm usually not affected by music of any kind all that often. But I definitely had a kind of gut reaction to this thing, and it was a powerful experience. I first picked it up because I heard (on my forum, appropriately enough) that it was some nerdy, poetic rapper who used beats from the likes of Flying Lotus, Gold Panda, and Shlohmo, all of whom have made albums that I greatly enjoy. So I threw it on. Even in the first few lines of the first song, "Omar Don't Scare", he espouses a kind of mini-manifesto of non-egocentricity and aggression. And namechecks Werner Herzog, which really hooked me for the duration of the tape. And the rest of the tracks take a similar stance on the whole: no violence, or drinking. Instead, Pokemon battles and green tea.

There's a subgenre of hip-hop out there which goes by the name "Nerdcore". And it really sounds just like you think it would: guys rhyming about Star Wars and computers. It's become a fairly prominent genre, practiced by guys like MC Chris, MC Frontalot, and MC Lars. There was even a documentary about it. And while I would think the general consensus would be that Milo would fit into that genre, I don't think that would be the best place for him. I'm not the biggest scholar of nerdcore, I haven't really listened to it that much. But from what I can gather, a lot of it comes off as being really jokey and somewhat pandering. i.e. "HAHAHA LOOK THAT GUYS RAPPING ABOUT DARTH VADER". Which isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, Milo has a line about Vader himself ("I spend hours trying to find the right .gif of Darth Vader/One of these days, they'll make me message board moderator"). But when these nerdcore rappers do it, it occasionally comes off...exploitative, you could say. Like they know what there audience is, and what they want. Milo doesn't strike me like this at all. Milo says what he means, and means what he says. Whether he's describing his anticipation of Diablo III or comparing his own philosophical views on death to Vonnegut's, it's very obvious that Milo know what he's talking about. Hence, again, why I could sympathize so much with it. With details, it's clear that he has spent his fair share of time on forums, and reading, and writing. I think the main difference between Milo and most nerdcore is that while nerdcore uses things like Star Wars as cultural symbols for "geek" or "nerd", Milo, and me in turn, extract a sort of emotional meaning and satisfaction from them. These things aren't things that "nerds do"; these things are things that "nerds" find personal meaning in, when personal meaning is lacking from a lot of other places in their lives.

The tracks that struck me when I first listened to the album were the ones that have the most bold statements. But it isn't really the ones that have the boldest statements, it's the ones that proclaim their statements in the boldest way: the pacifism of "Omar Don't Scare", the anti-consumerism of "Sanguine Spin Cycles", and the self-depreciation of "Mr. Doubt(w)riter". They're elegant, and intelligent, and extremely well-written, and make no secrets about what they're trying to say. And they're good songs, needless to say. But after you listen to the tape a few times, the more understated songs start to open up to the listener. The second track, "Just Us", for example. It's a really touching tribute to Milo's late friend Rob Espinosa, hence the album title. Rob provides something of a focal point to the mixtape, and it's dedicated to him. I don't know anything about it though, so I would rather write too much about it at the risk of offending someone. However, it segues into the third track, "One Lonely Owl", named after the Gold Panda beat it uses, became one of my favorite songs of of the entire album. It starts off with this achingly pretty sampled piano loop on top of which Milo recites this wonderfully surreal, deadpan poetry. Another of my favorites (which really couldn't be anything other than my favorites on the grounds of the title alone) was "DAVID FOSTER WALLACE". It features a odd beat, made from pitchshifted vocals and is maybe the most representative song of the album, with it's lyrics about alienation and numerous literary references. On his Bandcamp page, Milo tagged himself as "Library Rap", and I think that's especially true on this track.

The final track on the album, "Bill Murray's Prayer", is a worthy epilogue of the album, and it summarizes a lot of the concepts of the rest of the tracks in a nice way. Mentions of Bane breaking Batman's back (straight out of Knightfall. See, the guy knows his stuff!), mathleticism, and worshiping Bill Murray as god. And I think all of those things represent the central thesis of Milo well: there are people who enjoy things that you don't understand at all, things that are totally meaningless to you, or things that you only know peripherally or that you might discredit as not deserving of serious consideration. But the people who enjoy these things take more away from them than you can possibly imagine. What you discount as being weird, or silly, or stupid is the lifeblood of someone else. People find beauty or meaning or inspiration in strange places like Ghostbusters or Batman trade paperbacks or talking about weird rappers on internet forums. And the way I like this album mirrors that sentiment, in that it's not something that many people, most people, would delight in, but that doesn't matter, because I do.