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Ben Grenrock liked the endnotes.
“The time is now./ To stretch your mind to its maximum peak./ To know everything.”
These lines, spoken by Milo at the beginning of “ashwaganda,”—the last of ten tracks comprising the self-titled debut from his and Elucid’s new project, Nostrum Grocers—serve as both invitation and imperative. They’re a call to join the Maine-by-way-of-Milwaukee MC in pursuit of an ideal and also the key to unlocking the chambers of esoteric hyperrealism he and Elucid have wrought atop a beautiful foundation of beats produced by the Grocers themselves.
They’re also a challenge. Because “to know everything” that transpires over the course of Nostrum Grocers is a tall order, one that demands intimate knowledge of everything from the names of World of Warcraft’s sentient reptiles to the specific nomenclature of Japanese soups. And there are generally two ways one can look at any sort of challenge: either as an oppositional gauntlet tossed at your feet, or as something that pushes you to transcend your preconceived notions of self and/or reality. Which of those two paths you choose will largely determine how you interface with Nostrum Grocers, the catalogs of either of these MCs, and the entire subgenre of art rap as a whole.
Those that opt for the former path may see Nostrum Grocers as little more than another venue for the rappers to, “Flow art-deco ad nauseam,” as Milo sardonically describes his style on the stunning track, “where’ing those flowers.” This reading of Milo’s unique approach to rap is more than just jocular self-deprecation. Many hip-hop heads who I’ve spoken with or whose thoughts I’ve encountered on the internet react with earnest nausea to his polysyllabic lexicon and his Mary-Poppins bag of never-ending oblique references. To pull from the most cogent and least asinine or offensive comment on a Rap Genius discussion forum entitled “I Hate Milo,” one listener describes the rapper’s catalog as, “Pretty interesting, but yeah admittedly there is kinda an air of pretentiousness about it.”
But for those who are willing to engage with both Milo and Elucid on the MCs’ own, intellectually exacting terms, both the content of the record and its very existence might begin to fulfill the aspiration Milo lays out in metaphor on, “medium”: he wants to, “Turn a trap into a think tank.”
In a way, this is the goal at the heart of Nostrum Grocers. Billed in its Bandcamp blurb as, “an accumulation of [the rappers’] respective paths as Black liberation technicians,” there’s plenty in the record’s lyrical content to warrant such a description. Barbs aimed at shoot-first cops, systemic economic oppression, and virtue signaling faux-allies pepper the lyrics. But they are never the main thrust of any given song. Instead, these invectives act more like particulates, distributed equally and delivered with the same gravity as snapshots of fatherhood, allusions to Star Wars, and evocative glimpses of the quotidian, all mixed together in an aqueous solution of lived experience that the rappers deliver with intimate clarity.
And it’s this holistic amalgam that does the album’s liberatory heavy-lifting. Because instead of the caricatured personas that are often the accepted battle dress of folks with a yen for spitting bars in rhythm, Nostrum Grocers present three-dimensional renderings of their whole selves. Their justified fury is a part of it, but neither rapper allows that, or any one element of who they are, to overshadow the variegated mosaic of their human complexity. In doing so they liberate themselves—and in a way, their listenership and their genre—from the narrow stereotypes rap music can at times present, perpetuate, and enforce.
Elucid’s verse on “peace is the opposite of security,” is a deconstructed day-in-the-life that sticks so closely to the rapper’s subjective experience it feels like a cinematic montage of shots from an Enter The Void-esque first-person perspective. He’s counting quarters to pay for drug store sushi; he washes his meal down with smoke from a hand-rolled cigarette before stumbling upon the perfect George Duke sample for a beat he’s crafting; he stops for a moment, lost in thought at how surviving the modern world threatens to wring the compassion out of you; his email glitches out on him; he looks at the buzzing clot of New York City, feeling isolated by its dystopian mass; he invokes a Yoruban deity while reflecting on the heritage he’s passed on to his newborn son; he resolves to keep going.
Here and throughout the record, Elucid does little to hold your hand as you are led through the nooks of his psyche. He growls out unfiltered thoughts in his resolute poet’s rasp, letting his bars sit before the listener like ancient monoliths to be puzzled at, interpreted, or connected with in such a primal way as to constitute an inexplicable and awe-inspiring transference of experience. There’s a degree of effort required to keep up, but it mostly stems from the jarring sensation of being forced to see the world as processed by the machinery of someone else’s mind. As he says on “camera,” Elucid’s complete candidness is an attempt to “complicate the narrative.” And the more complicated the narrative, the more difficult it is to follow—but also, the more space for truth it allows.
If Elucid isn’t big on hand-holding, Milo threatens to eschew it entirely. To demonstrate his at-times uncomfortable adjustments to fatherhood, Milo uses his (and other ex-Hellfire Club members’) slang for “stoned,” saying he’s, “Cookie-faced and paranoid, trying to buy a high chair.” He tells us his palms sweat like Kim Dotcom’s (founder of the defunct file-hosting service Megaupload who’s incurred years of legal battles with multiple governments over charges internet piracy—perhaps, hence the clamminess) or like Dat Pham’s (a Vietnamese-American stand-up comic, whose possible reasons for having sweaty hands are not cataloged on Wikipedia). He compares the recording industry to an exploitative system of revenue farming that was created during the Muhgal Empire in 17th century India. He invents adjectives out of the most esoteric of nouns. He packages references to abstract philosophical concepts alongside allusions to the types of candy he enjoys.
As with Elucid, Milo’s aim isn’t to write verses that are easily followed; it’s to write verses that are true to how he perceives the world, unique lexicon and all. Milo is clearly a highly intelligent dude who sees life through a lens that’s been polished by liberal arts philosophy courses and a lot of reading. His intellect and his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure factoids are an inextricable part of who he is and his metaphors blossom accordingly. He’s not pretending to know these things to create a fake image of how smart he is; he’s being honest. And while I can’t know for sure, I’d imagine that more often than the unique stew of information bubbling in Milo’s head has made him feel superior, it’s made him feel isolated.
It’s easy to see why difficult verses like Elucid’s or Milo’s would frustrate some listeners, just as it’s easy to understand why flipping to the back of Infinite Jest to read David Foster Wallace’s endnotes frustrates some readers. But more often than not, an aversion to “intellectual hip-hop,” or “lyrical hip-hop,” or “art rap,” isn’t simply a matter of frustration, nor is it one of aesthetic taste. The industry has historically rejected rap with an intellectual bent, necessitating artists like Milo to create independent systems of distribution for their records. It’s not just heads lurking in Rap Genius forums that decry this style of music.
Which brings us back to the idea of pretentiousness, something people who dislike the sub-genre of hip-hop that Nostrum Grocers falls into often cite as it’s major flaw. This seems like a pretty bizarre gripe. Because an aversion to pretentiousness is just an aversion to a certain flavor of self-aggrandizement. And self-aggrandizement has been an integral part of rap lyricism for as long as rap has existed. So why is big-uping one’s intellect such a crime in hip-hop?
Why is it somehow worse for Milo to say that his vocabulary pays his rent than for Jay Z to say that his skill as first a drug dealer, then as a media mogul, pay his? Why is it off-putting for rappers to brag about their IQ, but accepted when they brag about their sexual prowess, or arsenal of weapons, etc., etc. This isn’t to put any sort of value judgments on either sort of lyrical content; there’s nothing objectively wrong with either of them. But there seems to be something ugly lurking beneath the surface when MCs that display their intelligence or who seek to present themselves as complex individuals are labeled peddler’s of “hipster music,” while the often two-dimensional personas of the rappers who don’t are considered somehow more “real.”
Pretentiousness appears to be the only prohibited form of self-aggrandizement for black men in hip-hop because it grates against racial stereotypes that are still subconsciously coded into our culture. Perhaps this isn’t always the case on an individual level and it certainly isn’t to say that no one gives art rap a chance (Milo, for example, has a loyal and relatively robust fan base). But the marginalization of hip-hop that seeks to tell a story through complex extended metaphor, or that uses words like “pugilistic,” or that’s rife with literary references, or that doesn’t worship at the alters of Glock and Gucci by most of the mechanisms of the music industry stems from more than just a matter of taste. And what it essentially does is shoehorn the breadth of perspectives and personalities on offer into a relatively narrow and simplified sample.
Elucid and Milo’s very act of unapologetically rapping the way they do, of forcing listeners to rise to the level of intellect they model or be left behind, is itself a form of protest—one that’s been enacted across the catalogs of Open Mic Eagle, Serengeti, Busdriver, and others. But Nostrum Grocers hammers the point home with a directness rarely seen before. Its lyrical complexity is a challenge to enshrined notions of what rap music can be just as the nuanced way in which Milo and Elucid depict themselves, showing us their world through their unique lens, is a rejection of the popular stereotypes that tend to define what a rapper is. Quoting Sun Ra on “ashwaganda,” the pair chant: “Somebody else’s idea/ of somebody else’s world/ is not, my idea/ of things as they are.” And that can be as potent a protest as any.