Genre Defining: What Makes Milo “Art-Rap?”
Trying to constantly fit a musician into a specific genre is a mostly worthless task. It does a huge disservice to the musicians because any single genre they could be lumped into would likely be too broad to actually mean anything or so specific and constricting that any kind of deviation or experimentation would push them right out of the genre. Fortunately for me though, it’s not an entirely worthless exercise. Throwing around highly specific (and typically highly hyphenated) names for music genres tends to be the most useful and fun when it’s either some kind of an academic exercise in what defines a category, or as a useful evocative shorthand that can give a new listener a strong idea of exactly what they’re in for with an album or artist. This brings us to “art” music.
“Art-[genre]” has always been a weird genre label for me to work with. The way the term is applied on and by musicians comes with a heavy implication of the snobby “Oh, you won’t get this, it’s ART” mindset. If you say something is art-rock or art-pop, I immediately hear something overly aggressive and weird, frequently pushing the boundaries of music and genre to the point of being unlistenable. It’s a term that’s dripping with an “I’m doing this because I can and I don’t care if anyone enjoys it” mindset (which is fine) and a sense of superiority and elitism toward more “standard” music (which is not fine, for me at least). This brings us to art rap.
Art-rap is one of the newest entries to the art-music world, coming about when Open Mike Eagle decided to put a new name to his boundary-pushing musical style. He started the sub-genre as a way to begin challenging conventions in the relatively young super-genre of hip-hop and rap. From there, the music produced under this label has (based on the probably woefully inadequate amount of art rap I’ve listened to) generally focused on what rap can sound like, rather than the overarching “what qualifies as music” question that drives much of art rock boundary pushing. Even though it’s saddled with the “art-“ baggage, art rap is, in my experience, pretty enjoyable to listen to. It’s a good genre with a name that could do with a lot less baggage. This brings us to milo.
milo, real name Rory Ferreira, does not seem to care much for being called art rap. It’s an understandable position because getting permanently associated with and pigeon-holed by such a specific and weird genre has to feel incredibly limiting and reductive to an artist. His distaste for the term is kinda unfortunate because art rap really is a good term for what he does (or, at least, what he’s done so far). If you had no idea what an avant-garde take on rap could sound like, throwing on any given milo track would give you a pretty good idea of what kind of stuff is possible. He’s good. Because milo is so good at what he does, I want to break down his music into the components that make it “art.”
“Sound,” to me, is made up of two parts, the music, and the vocals. A lot of milo’s music builds around a jazz-funk base (especially on his newest album, who told you to think??!!?!?!?!), but it frequently blends in some elements from other genres (I’ve heard some indie-rock-esque guitars from time to time, and a hint or two of fellow Wisconsin native Bon Iver) or will stretch the basic instrumental sounds by playing around with the pitch and tone of the instruments. It’s different and interesting, but never really tries to be difficult.
milo saves his aggressive experimentation for the vocals. His base delivery is enough to keep you on your toes. He has a standard flow cadence that he starts a lot of songs with, but he’ll vary pace and emphasis constantly, as the content requires. It’s all very deliberate and measured, but the variation still somewhat paradoxically brings a feel of order and system to the music. And then, every couple of songs, milo will shit all over that system by bringing in some out-of-nowhere electronic vocal effects. Sometimes it’s just a single word heavily distorted. Sometimes it’s some very aggressive reverb looping slipped in throughout a song. Sometimes words just seem to drop and disappear in the songs. Sometimes there are some samples really aggressively put on top of the music. milo’s found a lot of tricks to use, and he has no problem using any of them at a moment’s notice as a way to grab your attention back just as it may begin to drift.
On almost any given milo track, there are two things that immediately jump out about his lyrics: the incredible poetry of his songs, and the deluge of references that serve as the foundation of his music. His lyrics very rarely fit into a verse-chorus format, and instead just flow freely and tell a story as they need to be told. They’re lyrics that could be written down and read, and still be just as much “art” on their own as they are with music. The stories in the song are real-feeling and relatable, even if the density and type of references can often make them somewhat incomprehensible.
And oh, those references. Music, especially rap, being full of references to random things is nothing new. But milo is able to take those references to a new level by the sheer density and breadth to which he uses them. He has enough wrestling and video game name drops in his music to fit in with any nerdcore crew, but he’s equally comfortable talking about Kant and Kierkegaard and any other random philosopher. The majority of milo’s references are, at best, wildly esoteric, and frequently read like citations in an academic paper. But somehow, it works and makes highly enjoyable music. Cutting the academia with wrestling references, and vice-versa, creates a balanced and realistic feel that works way better than either on their own.
The “art” of milo’s art-rap is the best kind of art. It’s challenging, but not inaccessible. It’s aggressive, but will never force you away. The creator can enjoy the process of its creation, but the audience can also enjoy consuming it. It’s art as a balancing act, and it’s executed with increasing precision as milo continues making more and more music.