Music Review: Milo and “Cavalcade” — A Nerd Makes Superb Philosophical Hip Hop

Milo is a young rapper who is not afraid to ruminate on the disconcerting resonances of solipsism or on the impenetrability of the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Cavalcade by Milo. Available as a free download from Hellfyre Club.

Cavalcade cover art

Cavalcade cover art

Earlier this year, underground hip hop artist Milo dropped the yin/yang EPs Things That Happen at Day and Things That Happen at Night, his first releases on his new label, Hellfyre Club. However, the young rapper had already distinguished himself as one of the quirkiest characters in the field with 2011’s I Wish My Brother Rob Was Here and reinforced this image with 2012’s Milo Takes Baths, making no attempt to hide the fact that he is a student of philosophy (and all-around “nerd”) on those two tapes.

Things That Happen at Day and Things That Happen at Night gave us Milo operating at a high poetic and philosophical pitch, with the MC exploring the themes of his earlier material in a more refined, detailed way. On Day and Night, he was not afraid to ruminate on the disconcerting resonances of solipsism or on the impenetrability of the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

The beats on Day and Night were tops, as well. Multi-instrumentalist Riley Lake provided some very lush, progressive production to the former effort and Analog(ue) Tape Dispenser crafted some very moody, ambient instrumentals for the latter. Milo’s latest mixtape, Cavalcade, finds him again working with Lake on production—resulting in an aural experience that is just as colorful and vivid as the earlier EP, if not more so.

Cavalcade’s opener, “Geometry and Theology,” kicks things off on an expectedly esoteric note with an extended sample taken from the 1993 biopic, Wittgenstein. The audio snippet focuses on Ludwig Wittgenstein as he delivers a lecture on the philosophy of language. Milo’s first few bars are determinedly cerebral: “Boiled the elements down into the axioms/Mistook a fax for remedial tediums/It seems Ezekiel speaks to some/My mind was hazed and numb.” Admittedly, Milo’s verbal flow is awkward, but he manages, yet again, to step up his game as a lyricist.

Matching Milo’s lyrics, Riley Lake’s instrumental on this opening track also approaches the sensational—he performs on the acoustic guitar, the violin, and the percussion, as well as the electronics, making the beat feel disarmingly organic. The whole song is also tastefully reverbed, and the watery effect on Milo’s voice goes over brilliantly thanks to the folksy, America-inspired sonic backdrop crafted by Lake.

The following track, “Sophistry and Illusion,” proffers a dark, clap-heavy instrumental, with Lake skillfully sampling James Blake’s post-dubstep hit “Retrograde.” Here, Milo’s voice is layered and pitch-shifted very high, while featured artist Nocando’s voice is pitch-shifted very low. The latter’s namedropping of Nietzsche in the second verse suggests that he’s not out of his element rapping alongside Milo.

Unfortunately, the next featured artist, Busdriver, proves to be a disappointment on the song “Red Oleanders.” His guest verse on Night’s “Gus Haynes Cribbage League” was one of that EP’s highlights, but for his Cavalcade appearance, he opts to sing on the hook rather than rap. This is surprising, not only because he has such a distinct flow, but because his vocal inflection tends to be kind of strained and pitchy. The saving grace of the track is its somewhat jazzy instrumental, as well as the engaging martial arts film sample that kicks things off. Still, it’s not enough to save the track from meandering throughout its six-minute-long runtime.

Cover art for "Milo Takes Baths"

Cover art for “Milo Takes Baths”

“Red Oleanders” is the only sub-par moment on the tape. The only other off-putting aspect of Cavalcade is that its seven tracks clock in at a meager half-hour. The epic, penultimate track, “I Am Am,” leaves the listener wishing that there were three or four songs beyond its powerfully sampled “Kenosha, WI” coda.

Still, the lead single “Ecclesiastes” ultimately makes for a potent closing track. It opens with a sung vocal part from Milo that sounds eerily similar to Centipede Hz-era Animal Collective. When Milo sings “I am no longer afraid of the darkness” on this hook, it gives the song a powerful sense of finality. He’s never sounded quite so confident, but Milo becomes concerned that this newfound bravado might be at the expense of his trademark sincerity. On the outro, he passionately chants “You can kill each one of my best friends/And I will right them songs on my palms like I didn’t fucking notice,” evoking his irrefutably sincere I Wish My Brother Rob Was Here self.

With Cavalcade, Milo finds a way to keep his quirky, forthright personality fresh, partly because of Riley Lake’s lush, layered instrumentals but also because of the MC’s continued progression as a lyricist and thinker. Some things haven’t changed—from his first mixtape Milo has repeatedly produced a too little rather than too much music. Still, Cavalcade should be more than enough to keep listeners bopping their heads while pondering metaphysical and epistemological issues for a good while to come.

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