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Milo is Rapping About Survival

Aug. 8, 2017
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Photo Credit: Kristina Pedersen
Milo never asked to have a chip on his shoulder. For as angry as some of his most celebrated music has been, anger isn’t his natural state. Off stage he’s a chatty, gregarious guy with an abrupt, infectious laugh and an all-encompassing sense of humor. In another era he might’ve been primarily a joke rapper—and, indeed, he does make his share of silly music, some of which he releases as Scallops Hotel or under other aliases—but those aren’t the times we live in. As he puts it, the stakes are too high for that.

Milo had released several albums of smart, surrealist beat poetry before taking a hard political turn on his heady 2015 breakout record, So The Flies Don’t Come, his deeply personal response to the Black Lives Matter movement told from the perspective of an artist fed up by fans telling him what he should and should not be allowed to say. Two years later, that record has lost none of its power—it remains one of the most distinctive political rap albums of its time—but, by design, it didn’t quite capture the sheer gravity of the situation. By rapping about artist prerogative and the outrage of censorship, Milo sometimes skirted the bigger, more obvious outrage: People are being killed. Unarmed people. For the color of their skin.

Nobody could accuse him of dancing around that reality on his latest album, Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?, an even more confrontational set of incensed, jazzy hip-hop recorded with a wider range of producers but no less focused than its predecessor. The album isn’t as heavy as it might sound on paper. Like every Milo project, there’s an inherent whimsy to it, because rapping is an inherently whimsical act, from the freeform associations to the wordplay, and the way he bends words to fit the beats, it’s fun.

Yet without sacrificing that levity, on nearly every track, Milo offers some kind of reminder that literal lives are on the line; that, as a black man, his safety is never completely assured. “Guess I’ll keep rapping until they toe-tag me,” he shrugs on “Call + Form.” When one track, “Paging Mr. Bill Nunn,” abruptly pauses after a police officer gives a hard knock on a window and asks, “What’s the problem,” the effect is something like that final scene of Get Out. He doesn’t have to spell out why just the mere presence of the police might portend doom.

“I’m not sure people my age realize what the stakes are,” Milo says. “We’ve all been divorced from our history in this country and just exactly how cruel we’ve been and what that means for us today. That’s on my mind a lot in my music; in part because of travel. I go to a lot of different places, and I see the effect that I have on people. I’ve been to towns where just me sitting around has made people call the police. I’ve been to a lot of places in this country where I’ve recognized that just my being is a threat to a lot of people. Just my being! And I’m not even talking about being college educated; somebody dedicated to art and freedom. Scratch all that shit. Just being 25-years-old, 6’3”, black, 200 pounds, with long hair and tattoos. So I’m definitely trying to flirt with that danger, fuck with that danger, in my music. I don’t want it to crush me. I don’t want to whine about it. But I do want to document it. I do want to joust with it.”

This summer, Milo left Milwaukee, his latest of many adopted homes, for Maine, though he expects to be back here quite a bit. About a month before his move, he recalls, he took his 8-month-old son for a walk down Brady Street. “I had him strapped to my back in a little carrier,” Milo says. “I walked by Glorioso’s, and there’s a parked cop car. And the cop sees us coming down the block and gets out of his car, walks around it and leans on his car facing me, just watching me walk down the street with my son. And I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing to prompt this?’ Why is it so important that this state know that I’m being surveyed? Even when I have my son on me, and I’m just walking down the street doing nothing, it’s always present.”

And that, he says, it why it’s always present in his music, too. In a utopia he might rap exclusively about art and philosophy and TV and silly shit, but he has other obligations. “I have to make sure that people know the stakes are a little bit higher for me, even if I might prefer to be a whimsical, bohemian artiste,” he says, punctuating the word “artiste” with one of those sharp laughs of his. “But the stakes are so high! Even making that kind of music, the stakes are high. To me, it connects to a tradition that stems from the ’90s, with guys like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. I think they had that same paranoia, that sense of, ‘I live in a place that really hates me, man.’ I live in a country that really doesn’t like me.”

Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!? is out Friday, Aug. 11


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