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Milc has a story to tell on his new album, The Fish That Saved Portland

Milc has a story to tell on his new album, The Fish That Saved Portland

Portland needs saving. Its an oft-repeated premise, although the question of saving from who or what varies wildly depending on who you ask. Often, it’s a narrative repeated by would-be pundits in service of policies which actually exacerbate the problems they’re gesturing at. In the right voice, however, in the voice of a true storyteller, that narrative is flipped on it’s head and used to cut against those alarmists who would reduce a place to a list of complaints.

It’s no surprise that The Fish that Saved Portland, the latest album by Portland native Milc, has a title that reads like a story. Milc has a story to tell, his story, and in telling it, he doesn’t shy away from the nuances, the specificities, the details that push against the boundaries set down by those who would speak for his city. A few days before The Fish dropped, Milc released a love letter to Portland, a note full of reminiscence and with no shortage of criticisms, but his closing lines underscore the theme of the album’s 42 minute runtime. “I’ll stick with Portland through the good, the bad and the ugly, and everything in between.”

In keeping with Milc’s tendency to work with a single producer on each project, The Fish is produced entirely by Televangel, and is a follow-up to the pair’s 2022 project Neutral Milc Motel. For his part, Televangel has been putting together a resume of stellar production credits over the last few years, including Parthian Shots with AJ suede, and Incorruptible Saints with Sleep Sinatra, both of whom make appearances on the triumphant “Original Pirate Material.” The other features all bring something special to the table as well, from YL’s butter smooth delivery to “Pain & Leather,” to Nacho Picasso’s glorious drawl on the plodding “Mankind,” to Old Grape God’s signature stylings on “Cappadonna,” to Fatboi Sharif’s gravelly capstone to “Hospice.”

The samples on The Fish are expertly selected, the kinds of funk, soul, and jazz flips one would expect to find on a contemporary indie rap release, but always undercut with an element of the unfamiliar, from the reversed guitar on “Pain & Leather,” to the vocal sample on “Aqua 8s,” filtered down into near-unintelligibility. It’s clear that Televangel digs a few crates deeper than your average beat maker, though he never strays too far from the groove, and always leaves just enough space for Milc to lay way back into his pockets. Speaking of Milc’s laid-back flow, there are a few stylistic comparisons a writer might make, and Milc gets right out ahead of them on “Cappadonna:”

They compare me to white rappers in half the comments

Got that Ghostface Killah, and that Action Bronson

And the cookie still good, word to Magic Johnson

I can’t be a conscious rapper, I don’t have a conscience

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It’s a constant move of rejecting and redirecting the narratives Milc anticipates people might try to box him into, but what keeps him interesting is his ability to do that while alternating between absurd braggadocio and hilarious self-deprecation, not shy of a good punchline, never taking himself too seriously even as he’s dishing out the kinds of razor sharp criticisms only a rapper can make. He’s also clearly a student of the culture, interpolating Jay-Z’s famous “First the fat boys breakup/now everyday I wake up…” on “Plus Sized Model,” and recontextualizing the hook of the millennial earworm “Suga Suga” on the aptly titled “Baby Bash,” among others.

The Fish That Saved Portland above all is self-aware. It’s coke rap about bad coke, food rap about good food, basketball rap about a city whose star player was just traded–but at the end of the day, that self-awareness, that specificity, is Milc’s expression of a complex kind of love for his city. Portland doesn’t exist as an abstract concept. Portland is the people who live here, who grew up here, and who are in it for as long as the river keeps flowing through town, carrying, among other things, a certain fish along with it.