Ben Grenrock prefers bay scallops.
It would seem like there’s a finite amount of exemplary performance in all of us. Having completed work regarded as our best, it’s considered irrational to expect our next efforts to immediately meet or transcend this high water mark. Rarely does an athlete post career highs in successive game. Rarely does an actor or musician deliver back-to-back performances described as “their best.” Typically, time must pass, the metaphorical fountain of inspiration must be allowed some time to refill itself, before we’d expect to top ourselves.
Therefore it really shouldn’t be possible for milo’s new record, sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face, to be as good as it is—considering it was released a scant four months after last August’s stellar breakthrough who told you to think??!!?!?!?! Yet from its self-produced beats, to its lyrics, to its structure, Milo’s latest stands up to and even surpasses its predecessor.
The production is, at the very least, comparable to what he’s offered across his past three releases. Though similar in quality, tonally this new record is an opposing foil to who told you to think??!!?!?!?!. sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face is the yin to last year’s critically-lauded yang, and a reflection of milo’s penchant for doing the improbable both in and out of the vocal booth.
The best thirty seconds on who told you to think??!!?!?!?! might come in the latter half of the song “the young man has a point (nurture).” Replete with all the trappings of a milo verse—coded introspection, social commentary in the form of arcane literary references, the transmutation of mundane symbols into identity-defining truths—this brief stanza is punctuated by the lines, “Spit it like Zadie Smith with a Jay Z lisp/ Or like J.Z. Smith. You could take your pick./ The point is, my vocabulary pays my rent.”
Of the many possible glosses these bars might conjure, none feel as true as this: Irrespective of the specific iteration of milo’s delivery, his content, or his style, he’s unequivocally made a name and—more importantly—a life for himself with his breed of honest, intellectual hip-hop.
Though he’s been releasing quality music for years, who told you to think??!!?!?!?! was a watershed moment for milo. It marked a new high point for all the elements of not just his craft, but seemingly of his life on a comprehensive scale. Ruby Yacht, the record label he’d built from the ground up, was thriving, as was his family—he, his wife, and their newborn son had just settled in a quiet nook of Maine where he’d made inroads on plans to build his own record store.
Somehow, milo had achieved something most underground rappers have only aspired to: he built himself a fulfilling, sustainable, and stable life with his art. Yet rather than with triumphant pride, when milo declares that his words pay his bills, the lines are spat with an edge. It’s less a boast than a gauntlet dropped like a microphone at the feet of music industry big money, fickle fans, or just generally a world milo has always felt apart from, challenging all of the above to try and wrest his accomplishments away from him.
Nearly all of who told you to think??!!?!?!?! is inflected with that same bite. Even in its quietest moments it’s a forceful album. Throughout it milo seems to inhale his entire world, not just filtering experience through his personal lens, but possessing it until it changes shape within him, as if the video game character Kirby were a poet with an impeccable, asymmetric flow. All the passion and intensity gathered and expended on the path to the record’s creation fuses with his statistically improbable successes, with his statistically realistic fears of losing them, and that mixture coalesces into a chip milo lifts off of his shoulder to etch the bars of who told you to think??!!?!?!?! into the hearts of listeners, hoping to draw a little blood while staking his claim on the life he fought for.
If who told you to think??!!?!?!?! is a powerful inhale, then sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face, is the relaxed exhale that follows. The exemplary stylistic growth of its predecessor is there in all its glory, but its defensive fire has, for the most part, cooled. Throughout sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face’s twenty-four minute run-time milo seems relaxed and perfectly comfortable in his element, like a performer who’s run through their set in front of an audience so many times they could do it backwards.
Thinking about the difference between the albums as if they were live shows might be helpful. Each is a compelling performance, but for different reasons. who told you to think??!!?!?!?! sees the rapper sweating, spitting, roiling the crow into a mob-like frenzy with his conviction from a dais raised high above them. sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face is a more casual affair, where the rapper engages his audience, jokes with them, lets their adrenaline simmer rather than boil, allowing their focus to shift to deciphering his words.
And that focus comes in handy, because this is no small task. Like David Foster Wallace—another writer who excelled at illuminating the unease of our oversaturated age by making it uncomfortably tactile in his work—milo’s penchant for dropping references esoteric to the point of requiring footnotes will either enthrall or alienate newcomers. But there’s even something relaxed about the way in which this piece of milo’s arsenal is wielded. The references skew less in the direction of Nabokov and Jean Dubuffet and more towards Mortal Combat and Inspector Gadget, which doesn’t necessarily make them easier to parse than those of his previous work, but they feel more personal than academic.
We even get something of a Wallacian footnote—a half-mumbled exchange between milo and engineer Steel Tipped Dove, in which Dove asks the rapper, “What’s Dee Dee Skyes?” and milo explains that, rather than a “what,” she’s the finest of “five biddies” in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon from 2003—at the end of “wherearewe,” a standout track that contains as succinct an illustration of the technological age as has been committed to song. The calm patience, almost shyness, as he unpacks Dee Dee Skyes exemplifies the record’s welcoming tone.
sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face is not always an encrypted barrage of proper nouns. Again, it’s the album’s effortless ease that allows milo to gently lead listeners through an idea that spans several bars before moving on to the next. On “a method (JAWGEMS pausing in the hotel lobby)” he traces a clear path from listening to his grandmother read to him from the bible to his own role as a familial figure, before those unfamiliar with Yu-Gi-Oh might have to break trail to find out what, or—again—actually who, Seto Kaiba is.
It’s a natural human response to see one’s greatest successes accompanied by the fear of seeing them slip away. Though who told you to think??!!?!?!?! is far from inflected with fear, the record is defined by milo’s fierce resolution to fight tooth and claw to protect all that he’d gained leading up to its release, and this is a response to the fear of loss.
Since its release that fear has been, for the most part, dispelled. No one took milo’s accomplishments away from him. Instead, the positive reviews, the purchases and downloads, the adulation and gratitude poured in. Soon he’ll be touring Europe with Open Mike Eagle, before returning to his family and a place he contentedly described to Rolling Stone as “Far away from everything.” The Ruby Yacht continues to sail onward.
sovereign nose of (y)our arrogant face is the sound of all those things falling into place, of an artist accepting that yes, they have really done something that everyone told them was impossible. It may lack some of the explosiveness and the fun underdog mentality of who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, but that’s because milo is no longer an underdog. He’s right where he belongs, immersed in his art, surrounded by his family, and far away from everything else.