Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Modern Milwaukee Rap

We've been getting a rich taste of Milwaukee's surprisingly flavorful hip-hop history from our looks at the musical restoration work of Jamille Records and Dope Folks Records' of recovery of Rock La Flow, but how about something contemporary? Not too long ago, if you pressed me, I could probably only have come up with The Rusty Pelicans... and I only really knew them because they scored an early collaboration with Slug (who, just to clarify, is from Minnesota, not Milwaukee) back in the day. But I've recently stumbled upon an artist whose work is definitely worth the spotlight, Kid Millions. His most recent album, Recession Proof Rap, is a nice, single LP (and CD/ digital release) from 2009.

So let's just jump right into it, because that's what I did: didn't know his history or his reputation or anything, just dropped the needle on the first groove of side A. As I did that, not expecting too much, I knew immediately this album was going to be a good time. Kid Millions isn't his own producer (though he co-produces two songs later on, when we flip this over for side 2), but the production on this album is distinct and... effective isn't strong enough a word. It's really compelling - and even though it's provided by a rotating roster of mostly unknowns - has a cohesive, original sound. It's the opposite of low-fi, rough production (Kanye could rap on this... and he'd get a lot of praise for it), but is still based in a sample-rich sound. That is to say, I don't know how these tracks were made, but it sure sounds like a lot of old records were involved, and not the old stand-bys we've heard a million times before.

"I Won't Help You Up," sounds, just instrumentally, like a Galactic-era Beastie Boys track, and "Trouble," produced by one of the aforementioned Rusty Ps, features some brilliant turntablism over a funky, ska-influenced base. This album has a cool, "what if hip-hop had been left to evolve free of outside, commercial interference" vibe. But evolve it still did, with a lot of layers and elements coming and going throughout each song. And, in contrast to that, Kid Millions keeps it all down to Earth. He's good at matching his voice and flow to the music (and could teach a lot of MCs today how to do hooks), but keeps things grounded with a pure, traditional hip-hop delivery. In other words, thankfully: no fancy shit.

And lyrically? Well, I didn't say this album was perfect. After spinning this album a few times (yep, right after finishing this album, I flipped it back to side A and started playing it again right away - how many albums can you say that about?), I started delving into Kid Millions' history, and apparently his older, self-released bio references being known for his, "often hilarious storytelling rhymes." Well, I'm happy to report that we've caught him matured past that. This album is gracefully free of juvenile story rhymes and contrived punchlines that plague so much our genre. The last thing I want an artist to tell me about the rap song he's about to play me is that it's "hilarious." But... I don't think Kid Millions has quite discovered what to fill his songs with in place of that kind of stuff.

If you asked me what most of his songs were about right after I listened to 'em, I'd just have to shrug. He's not saying much and he's not kicking complex wordplay. It's all very simplistic, oftentimes just describing the music you're listening to, or how hard he worked to make it. Grown man rap isn't just about excising all the silly kiddie shit, but replacing it with substance.  "I Made a Mixtape" is an exception, with a real anthemic, relate-able kind of concept... it didn't do it for for me either; but at least it's an example where it felt like he wrote a song, as opposed to just a lot of generic raps. I'd say that's typical of "a producer who raps," where the emphasis is just on vocals that support the musical soundscape he's creating, except, like I said, other people produced almost all of this. Weird, but oh well. Recession Proof Rap still works on a lot levels, and I definitely recommend it openly.

There's a single, too, on 7". The A-side is right off the LP, "Victim To the Beat." I'm not sure I would've chosen it as the single, but it does have a damn catchy old school vibe. It's got the exact sound later era Grandmaster Flash albums should've had. And on the flip is an exclusive B-side called "X-Files" by JTODD, who's the other half of a two-man crew with Kid Millions called Minus After, and who produced one of the songs on Recession Proof Rap. It gets some points for creatively minimalistic production, but for the most part it just kinda sucks. He's rapping with a funny, altered voice, with a style that feels like a bad attempt to be trendy, as opposed to listenable. And the parts where he actually brings in X-Files references (the song's just about himself repping Milwaukee, but the hook calls out "Mulder" and "Scully" over an interpolated riff from the show's theme song) brings the whole Lil B nonsense full circle.

So skip the single unless you're an absolute collector. Kid Millions has a couple other albums, too, though, dating back as far as 2001 and still available on CDBaby. I haven't heard those, but can vouch for an earlier 7" he did with the Rusty Pelicans in '06; that's quite good. Overall, as a rapper, I think Kid Millions needs to carve out more of a distinct identity for himself (listening to this album, I kept daydreaming how Luke Sick or any number of other MCs would've sounded on these songs); but for those of us who can appreciate good hip-hop without it being dressed up in a perfect, marketable package; there's more than enough quality here to get genuinely excited over. Seriously, put this one in your crates.

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