Alternative Hip-Hop, for how undefined and expansive it is, has a definitive niche in the highly-verbose, hyper-literate subset created by the likes of Gift Of Gab, Aesop Rock, and Busdriver, the latter still carrying it on with his latest release Perfect Hair. However, with Driver’s age, diminishing popularity, even in the underground, and repetition fading, it’s re-assuring to know a new name is in place to be his spiritual successor for a genre so caught up in not taking itself too seriously, considered by some a novelty long since past its prime. Milo, part of L.A.’s Hellfrye Club, is set to take that throne, and without much competition surrounding him, he won’t have much trouble in doing so. A Toothpaste Suburb, his proper debut album, contains everything that has made the sub-genre popular, from absurdist lyrics (and matching titles) to excessively trippy production, but culminates a loss from Milo’s lack of originality in terms of expanding the sound itself, mimicking his idol closely enough to make his perspective indistinguishable, losing some of his message along the way.
For how complex A Toothpaste Suburb is to the un-trained ear, from the dauntingly perplexing tracklist, to the superficially spell-binding lyrics, the album itself is deceptively accessible. Opener ‘Salladhor Saan, Smuggler’ introduces both the style and the sound, with glitchy synth action cascading throughout the track as warped female voices jet across whilst all maintaining a loose airiness, a soothing blueprint for the album’s production. However, towards the end the track collapses on itself, revealing the ugly truth which sets the stage of the toothpaste suburb, an “imaginary place,” a direct ode to Busdriver’s most famed song. Milo defiantly expounds that the “beating, lynching, burning” of black men will not be tolerated in his fantasy, a brutal twist of emotion that stalls the listener into compliance. This playful depression is showcased elsewhere too. On ‘Sanssouci Place’ Milo utters that he “sat staring at the ceiling, wondering when I’m going to die, I don’t need to be comforted.” ‘Ought Implies Can & I Cannot’ sees our lead pondering that “if I was a necromancer I wouldn’t be a fucking coward.” And the entirety of ‘Just Us’ focuses on the death of his friend Robert, cherishing the memories they made as kids, reflecting on their perceived interpretations of forever.
This battle between perception and reality gives A Toothpaste Suburb some much-needed depth, a noted problem of ‘nerd-rap.’ For on the surface Milo’s lyrics, while sometimes witty, intriguing, and insightful, rest too often on the ‘random’ shtick of his genre’s persona, instituting as many baseless references his mind could conjure up, like an episode of Family Guy played out musically. One in a handful of these will land, either providing comedic relief, nailing a clever pun, or accurately analogizing the situation. From the NeedleDrop to Plato’s Republic to BBW Tumblr pages, A Toothpaste Suburb is littered with referential lines that match, and oftentimes surpass, his mentor’s outlandishness. Thankfully, with his fantasy used as a background, there’s an underlying excuse for the lyrics. While there may not be enough variety in his lyrical style to muster through, Milo does sport a range of flows and paces that keep his songs fresh, especially with his partial singing, which, admittedly is rather off, has an endearing approach to it, especially on ‘Objectifying Rabbits’ where Milo croons that “I made you something pretty with my words today, I heard you gasp because you lack the words to say.”
Apart from some instrumental segments Milo’s dominance on his record unfortunately takes a toll on the listener, being too much for one to enjoy. Four of the five features take place on the latter half of the record, with Kool A.D. being the lone exception, and thankfully a much needed one. ‘In Gaol,’ the track he’s featured on, is one of the strongest, with a colossal bass and a glinting voice that jitters between the reverberations as the former Das Racist member launches a spoken word-esque verse that is hilarious with its no-frills approach. Another slipping point comes in the diversity of the production, relying heavily on synths and screwball beat measures, all wrapped up in the trademark ‘nerd-rap’ aesthetic. His fear, or qualms, in expanding past his genre’s own pre-made limitations causes unnecessary hardships on the record. Few songs deviate from this tested production style, with the ones brave enough in doing so standing atop the crop. ‘You Are Go(o)d To Me’ sacrifices prototypical, removing the fluff, leaving a skeleton of a beat that emphasizes repeating organic claps and a looping melodic xylophone to create an ethereal atmosphere. And ‘Argyle Sox’ is loopy and jerky with its cartoonish sounds teetering on like a demented circus as Milo “weeble wobble’s” throughout the track.
Many agree that ‘nerd-rap’ is a lost art, nothing more than a fad, one that focused on exemplifying thesaurus-like lyrics into coherent sentences, devoid of any meaning. While A Toothpaste Suburb fails to escape these parameters set upon the genre, it succeeds in creating another fresh take on a style long-since subdued. Milo’s added touches of realistically haunting stories woven into the fabric of his more comedic lines create a renewed sense of intrigue, for one listen wouldn’t do an album like this any good. Take closer ‘Gaudeamus Igitur’ for example. While artistically the sound differs slightly from the album’s foundation, airing a breath of negative nostalgia into the piece, it isn’t until the chorus erupts where the true emotions are felt. Milo, reserved and defeated, proclaims that “I was baptized in a Wal-Mart-branded kitty pool,” a shocking sentiment to his childhood and his up-bringings in the age of capitalism. It’s a far cry from his toothpaste suburb, and rightfully so, considering it detaches itself, returning to the mad world of his reality. A Toothpaste Suburb is a war; on one end lies one’s imagination, on the other, the real world attempting to rip it apart. The shortcomings of the album are noticeable, and often times detract from the experience, but Milo’s interpretation of fantasy, both sonically and lyrically, add a new layer into a genre consumed by its own wackiness.