who [taught] you to think??!!?!?!?!
Rory Ferreira began rapping publicly in high school after his good friend, Rob Espinosa, drowned in a swimming pool.
Rob’s death led to the birth of “Milo,” Rory’s fictional persona, and the creation of his 2011 EP, I wish my brother Rob were here, in which he confronts his grief and reanimates his friend through verse. Full of bizarre references, offbeat rapping, and logical inconsistencies, his EP grapples with death in a beautifully nerdy and utterly personal way. His stream-of-consciousness style, though often disorderly and puzzling, invites listeners on an emotionally-charged, metaphysical journey.
But convincing people to listen can be challenging. Quirks like Milo’s complex jargon may come across as pretentious and excessive rather than artistic and personal. His mistimed flow and conflicting emotions can easily be seen as invalidating instead of humanizing. The best parts of Milo’s music—the weirdest moments, the surprises in form and content—work for and against him, compelling some listeners and repelling others.
But I remain optimistic that anyone can appreciate Milo. His lyrics are more than intriguing; they are worth thinking about long after the song ends. His composition process and narrative style reject linearity. His music challenges assumptions about the way we think, write, speak, and listen.
It’s easy to say what Milo’s philosophy is not—to describe by negation, to contrast with the familiar. But describing it positively is harder. For Milo, it was Rob Espinosa’s death that made him question convention; for me, it was Deleuze and Guattari’s 1980 philosophy book, A Thousand Plateaus. By applying their ideas, I learned how to listen to Milo differently. And to listen differently, I had to think differently.
From the outset, the authors focus extensively on their metaphor of the “rhizome.” Like Milo’s music, this idea is most easily explained by what it’s not. Best understood in contrast to the structure of a tree, which consists of defined pathways between roots and branches, the rhizome resists such linear, “arborescent” paths that trace from one point to another. Instead, a conceptual rhizome is modelled after its botanical counterpart, a subterranean stem which projects roots and shoots from its nodes. The conceptual rhizome is an “anti-genealogy,” a heterogeneous whole in which each point is simultaneously connected to all other points, assembling a map of seemingly disparate ideas.
“Make a rhizome,” Deleuze and Guattari instruct. “But you don’t know what you can make a rhizome with . . . so experiment.”
Rhizomatic thinking values experimentation over ontology, or “becoming” over “being.” An individual is not a static entity, but an assemblage of genetics, experiences, and relationships. Like a rhizome, the parts of a human connect to represent not a whole but the suggestion of one—that which never is but continuously becomes. Approaching Milo’s Avant-rap as a rhizomatic experiment is a new and deeper way of engaging with his music.
Milo doesn’t write like most rappers. He told Rolling Stone in 2017 that before he became a father, he “used to spend the whole day reading stuff in pursuit of the perfect rhyme.” Rather than writing his music top-down from some general concept, he constructs his music bottom-up, engaging in a creative journey to find different, unforced, and often associative connections. He rejects market forces, ignoring the pressures to please the public. His music is authentic and experimental, not conformist. When asked about his songwriting process in a 2016 interview with Explain News, he responded: “I don’t know. It depends. There are so many different ways.”
A lover of exploration, Milo embraces a wide variety of musical structures. From the beginning of his newest LP, who told you to think??!!?!?!?!, he blends genres by sampling “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” a speech by James Baldwin. He experiments with song duration in “The young man has a point (nurture),” in which he raps a total of nine lines for just twenty-eight seconds. Most strikingly, his live performances explore spirituality through distorted rhythms and apparently possessed movements.
“All my grandfathers were preachers,” he said in a 2015 interview with OnMilwaukee, “so I try to make it a spiritual moment—without evoking any kind of religion or anything.” His mistimed flow and unusually dense lines are not incidental displays of ineptitude; they are integral components of his art.
Beyond his process and structure, Milo’s lyrical content is rhizomatic in both its disruption of binaries and its rejection of teleology, or the idea that change has an end or goal. In “Magician (suture),” he mentions “le[aving] home in search of where the orchid grows,” acknowledging that “the important part is you leave home.” He recognizes the binary of start/finish, of searching for/finding the orchid, but he privileges the middle, the experimental value of the journey itself.
Milo challenges binaries again in “The Thief of Always,” saying, “It’s a false choice like the mind-body problem / I’m weird but I’m good at this like Dennis Rodman.” Rather than disputing the difference between mind and body, as it may seem, he criticizes the problem itself—the costly fixation on arboreal binaries such as mind/body and weird/normal. His disruption of traditional logic peaks toward the end of “Just Us” when he exclaims: “Wherever you are, my brother, I hope you rest your weary shoulders. / There’s a lot more to Rob Espinosa than newspaper clippings in a folder.” Here, Milo locates his friend’s permanence outside of the living/dead divide. “I’m not trying to compress your existence into nicely wrapped tidbits,” he says, addressing his friend. “That’d be an insult to your memory as well as metaphysics.”
Just as Milo deviates from convention to honor Rob, listeners must shed conventional aesthetic and semantic standards to fully appreciate Milo’s “oddball hip-hop.” Rather than existing as a homogeneous playlist, created and curated for our enjoyment, Milo’s body of work is multidimensional—a conglomerate of ideas, experiences, and random impulses that materialize to create songs worthy of study. His unorthodoxies are not white noise, but small displays of metaphysical musings. Taken together, these displays suggest that chaos is by its nature orchestral—that accepting noise and uncertainty produces something comforting, beautiful, and utterly human.
Eric Wallach ‘21 is a first-year in Grace Hopper College.