The label of a “thinking person’s rapper” is thrown around a lot by music critics nowadays. Of course, there have always existed MCs to be branded as ‘conscious’ who have presented challenging ideas in their verses, but the contemporary significance of underground hip hop has allowed room for even more unconventional and idiosyncratic philosophies to be expressed within the rap arena. Many may see such a phenomenon, to an extent, as a reaction against the increasingly vapid nature of lyricism amongst the trap and mumble rap derivatives of hip hop, but with such styles of rap playing towards such a wildly different territory to the more progressive and experimental incarnations of the genre, drawing through-lines between these divergent attitudes towards hip hop can seem somewhat futile overall, bar the more general shared stylistic sensibilities that underpin each approach. Likewise, it’s not as if there don’t exist more mainstream acts to straddle the line between the more popular and the more experimental ends of the rap spectrum who provide substantial food for thought within a hefty, cinematic, conceptual framing, with there being no better example than Kendrick Lamar on projects such as good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly. However, perhaps the reason that an MC like Lamar has received such a warm commercial reception in spite of his convoluted storytelling capabilities stems from the fact that his lyrics nevertheless typically pertain to topics that have always retained a stage within hip hop, such as black culture, race relations and mental health struggles, as opposed to rappers whose core appeal lies in their willingness to subvert cultural norms and values in order to present completely alternative lifestyles and interests. A prime example from earlier this month came in the form of Uncommon Nasa’s Written At Night, wherein the treasured wordsmith of the New York indie rap scene depicted a night in the life of an artist who works exclusively after dark, as to avoid the thought traffic that clogs up the inner-city’s collective conscience during daylight hours. Indeed, amongst the MCs who are cut from the “thinking person’s” cloth, there is undoubtedly an aesthetic appeal to their thoughtful and well-balanced word salad that acts as a perfect supplement for any late-night/early-morning ruminations, and for many, Wisconsin rapsmith Rory Ferreira, who records under the alias of milo, is the underground king of the abstruse and the arcane.
Associated with the Hellfyre Club collective and record label and his alternative moniker of Scallops Hotel, milo’s rise to prominence as a powerhouse of independent hip hop has witnessed the unfolding of an interesting relationship between the artist and rap audiences. Practically every review for any of his works will be prefaced by a foreword on the writer’s relationship with milo’s music, in which they will typically talk about having a shaky start when first delving into the depths of the MC’s discography, before the fated moment wherein his music finally “clicked” for them. In fact, I honestly can’t say that my personal history with milo’s past material has been much different. As someone who is often partial to the more progressive and peculiar acts that hip hop has to offer, milo has previously been more of an artist that I’ve appreciated from afar than whose music has warranted any exceptional level of investment from me, and anyone who’s familiar with the rapper’s output up until this point will likely understand why this is, as it can be hard to get up close and personal with his artistry when it’s shrouded in such a degree of avant-gardisms and idiosyncrasies. Not being one to shy away from spitting over eclectic, off-kilter beats that vary from heavily-punctuated jazz rap to the breeziest of cloud rap instrumentals that can border on ambient music at times, milo is known for his esotericism, not solely in terms of his production choices, but also his cryptic lyricism, which is typically bestrewed with all manner of nerdy references, touching on everything from children’s cartoons to arcane African-American poetry. In this regard, despite being bound to the singular thematic principles that typically define his full-length works, Ferreira’s latest project under his milo pseudonym, who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, acts as somewhat of a summation of all that has defined his artistry up until this point, with the cover artwork acting as an appropriate mirror image of all the album’s lyrical and instrumental abstractions. Procuring a smorgasbord of beats that encompasses some of the glitchiest, cloudiest and jazziest tracks of his career thus far, milo matches the sonic variation on display throughout the tracklisting with references that are exceptionally eclectic even by his standards, with this only being aided by the bevy of collaborators, both familiar and new to being featured on a milo record, brought into the fold. In spite of all the extremes and eccentricities featured throughout who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, there is nevertheless maintained a marked tonal consistency emerging from how effectively milo anchors his usual droll observations and mordant humour in themes of race and inequality, viewed from his perspective as both an American citizen and an artist. At the same time, it’s the MC’s definitive sardonicism and causticity that allow room for a refreshing take on topics that are routinely tackled in the hip hop world. With some of the artsiest beats of his career to boot, who told you to think??!!?!?!?! stands as perhaps milo’s most well-rounded project to date, even if there still remain the same jagged edges to cut the listener with the artist’s usual sharp wit.
Although a decryption key would be needed to completely pick apart his lyrics across who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, many of milo’s thoughts can surely be traced back to various philosophers, poets and fellow rappers, with the opening cut in the tracklisting, poet (Black bean), exemplifying this perfectly. The vocal sample that is woven throughout the track of African-American writer James Baldwin shifting his focus away from his usual points of social criticism on issues relating to race, gender, class and sexuality, instead discussing the artist’s pursuit of integrity and the humanistic underpinnings of such a moralistic search for probity and honour, is a fitting summary of the entire conceptual groundwork on which the entirety of the album is built, that being perspectives on race and inequality viewed through the lens of an artist. The brief verse from milo that is sandwiched between Baldwin’s lectures bolsters this notion, with his proclamation that he is the “Black [Charles] Bukowski” paralleling the through-lines that the MC seeks to find between social commentary and art. What’s more, the notorious frankness of Bukowski’s writing appropriately reflects milo’s lyricism across who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, with this unequivocally amounting to his most lyrically direct project to date, even if the pillars of his opaque poetry still stand tall and obscure the exact meanings behind every minute detail of what is being said across the album. A great deal of this almost uncharacteristic forthrightness on milo’s part arises from the impressively fluid flow of the tracklisting from a lyrical perspective, and a musical one too, for that matter, although there will be more on that later. With the MC’s style of writing having always been exceptionally esoteric, previous projects of his could occasionally feel somewhat conceptually clunky, courtesy of how scattershot milo’s thoughts and ideas were sometimes put across. In contrast, the tracklisting of who told you to think??!!?!?!?! courses rather smoothly, with each track flowing logically from the last for the most part, whilst certain cuts are entirely dependent on the questions or ideas raised in the previous song, in order to have something to answer, react to or expand upon in a significant fashion. A particularly amusing and poignant example of this is with milo’s reappropriation of the hook from Method Man’s Bring the Pain on take advantage of the naysayer, as the rapper deals with his feelings of being uprooted from his home in Wisconsin whilst assuming the position of the addressee of Method Man’s repeated questions, “is it real, son, is it really real, son?”, thus treating the iconic Wu-Tang Clan member as a father figure. Although no answers are reached during take advantage of the naysayer, with the song even ending as milo asks Method Man, “why you fill me with these dark ass poems?”, it’s during the next song, idk, wherein the conclusions are reached, even if the sole definitive settlement to be found is that the MC truly doesn’t know the answer to any of Method Man’s questions, as he loosely rambles about not knowing across this brief interlude track, almost as if having reached a point of insanity. Although only a simple technique on the surface, linking songs together in this fashion lends itself well to milo’s style, in that it binds together some of his more inexplicit and unrigorous ideas in a way that allows them to be succinctly packaged in a comprehensible framework and conveyed more cogently to the listener, even if not all of the diminutive details are entirely accessible. This consistency is also self-containted within individual tracks, even regardless of the number of guest artists milo brings onto the cut, with yet another being a prime example. With the MC’s opening verse running through allusions to various aspects of popular culture, from American Apparel to the Nae-Nae, it’s during the second verse, courtesy of Lord Fred33, wherein these references take shape as detailing distractions that divert the attentions of otherwise compassionate people away from issues of racial inequality, perhaps best exemplified in the line, “Set the alarm and then hit the snooze / Responding to coloured killings by taking pictures in suits”. In retrospect, this bar mirrors the opening line to milo’s verse on the song, in which he depicts an “American Apparel tomb”, presumably pointing out the disparity of people who make the effort to buy their clothes from a sweatshop-free and ethically-manufactured shop, yet remain silent when more direct issues arrive at their doorstep, like “cat scratch fever in a sterile room”. With YCP Beno’s verse proclaiming his commitment to living a “fictionless” life, whilst Signor Benedick the Moor assures himself to “keep the fire flaming”, despite his friends and family being under fire from racial discrimination and inequality, yet another maintains an admirably cohesive and fluid arc, even in spite of the fact that its four verses are delivered by four different rappers. For the most part, this is representative of much of who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, with milo most definitely tightening up his thematic presentation as to craft what is easily his most consistent project thus far.
With who told you to think??!!?!?!?! tightening things up for milo on a lyrical basis, the fact that the album also reinforces a more elegant and natural flow sonically speaking does wonders for strengthening the artist’s stylings all around, which is all the more remarkable when considering that this record is also milo’s most expansive in terms of its stylistic scope. Ranging from the borderline ambient instrumental featured on note to mrs, which strikes some serene tones that aren’t a million miles off from Wolfgang Voigt’s minimal techno stylings under his GAS alias, to the East Coast-flavoured lounge jazz of call + form (picture), to the flurry of pulsating glitches and squelchy electronics that ornament poet (Black bean), who told you to think??!!?!?!?! is unquestionably the rapper’s most sonically and stylistically diverse project to date, and it also provides some of the most challenging instrumentals over which milo has ever attempted to rap. The dexterity with which the MC and his guests approach and execute their verses atop these beats, therefore, is impressive in itself, but milo often takes it a step further and varies his flows and overall inflection accordingly to suit the instrumental on top of which he’s spitting. The aforementioned, atmospheric note to mrs, for instance, witnesses the rapper assume an exceptionally soft and gentle intonation, to the point of almost striking an ASMR-like timbre at times, whilst, on the complete other end of the spectrum, the arbitrary bursts of glitchy effects used on his and E L U C I D’s vocals on landscaping capture a stark contrast with the tranquil backdrop of fluttering pianos and twittering bird song that yields one of the most dynamic cuts in the tracklisting. In the case of the closing track, rapper, with Busdriver being no stranger to appearing on outlandish or eccentric beats, it should be no surprise that the Californian MC rides the blaring punctuations and glitchy accents of this track during his verse seamlessly smoothly. At other points across the record, the fluidity between cuts can be fluent to the point of two songs sounding almost as if they are two separate movements of a single, grander piece. The watery electric piano tones, smoky saxophone lines and sparkling guitar licks of call + form (picture) evolve seamlessly into the heavenly, ascending ambiance of magician (suture), despite the juxtaposed warmth of the former and chilliness of the latter. The fact that two songs such as these that employ cavernously contrasting sonic palettes can exist side-by-side in the tracklisting is testament to the overall roundness, depth and resonance of the production across who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, with the album simply sounding fantastically rich, spacious and vibrant throughout its runtime. A cut such as sorcerer, as an example, captures such a gracefully sonorous and mellifluous colour in the way in which the warm keyboard tones and plucky piano sounds play against the beat’s full-toned low-end and faint crackle that the hazy quality of milo’s delivery is almost shaded in amidst the rest of the instrumentation, as to fashion more of an ethereal soundscape than a rap beat. One of the most engaging production quirks across the course of the entire record, however, comes towards the backend of paging mr. bill nunn, as the tender staccato of milo’s multi-tracked sung vocals are interlaced amidst the exceptionally elongated, languid and legato inflection of his rapped performance, which outlines an arresting contrast in tone like at no other point on the album. Indeed, on the instrumental side of things, perhaps the greatest triumph of who told you to think??!!?!?!?! is the potency with which the production captures a semblance of tonal cohesion unlike any previous record from milo, which is only made all the more momentous by the versatility at play across the tracklisting, with the MC varying his flows, deliveries and performances more than ever before across perhaps the most eclectic selection of beats to have ever been boasted on any past project of his.
Despite his usual tangles of cryptic lyricism and impossible instrumentals, the salient successes of who told you to think??!!?!?!?! are rather straightforward, in that the album simply sees milo play to the strengths that have become increasingly apparent over his past seven years’ worth of work. As such, the rapper’s core appeal remains as rigid as ever, and this record only gives underground hip hop heads all the more reason to extol him as one of the most thought-provoking MCs that the art rap scene has to offer. With milo’s music having often acted as a hub for his Hellfyre Club compadres and other independent rappers, it’s not difficult to understand why so many view him as a beacon of the alternative hip hop environment, acting as a pinnacle of all that is so alluring about the scene and the extent to which it offers a wildly unorthodox take on the typical trappings of rap music. In this regard, who told you to think??!!?!?!?! further fortifies milo’s position not as a thinking person’s rapper, but one of the thinking person’s rappers.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10