It’s been about a month since Gary “Mission Man” Milholland sent us one of the 100 CD copies of his 11th (11th!) album, M”. Jake and I have been fighting ever since over who should review it—because honestly, neither of us wanted to do it. I mean, what are we supposed to do? Tell you it sucks? Tell you it’s the work of a misunderstood genius? Tell you it’s both those things?
Here’s the thing about Mission Man: His approach to hip-hop (and yes, it’s fair to call what he does hip-hop, even if bears little resemblance to the shit they play on mainstream rap radio) values self-expression over art. Or, maybe more accurately, the self-expression is the art. Mission Man sounds like no one else not because he sucks (which is what most people think when they first hear him), but because he’s just being who he is—and he’s a self-taught white rapper/musician from rural Ohio with no real interest in molding himself to the mainstream. “I don’t need validation from the masses,” he raps on album opener “Open Mic,” over a lurching, clattering beat that may as well as be telling the masses to go fuck themselves. (Except that The Mish never, ever swears—so maybe it’s just politely telling the masses this might not be their jam.) Plenty of rappers love to drop verses about the many obstacles they’ve had to overcome—but with Mission Man, those obstacles include his own inability or unwillingness to make palatable music.
They also include all the pitfalls that come from being a totally D.I.Y. musician with limited funds and an even more limited fan base. Even though most of Mission Man’s songs are beamingly positive on their surface (with titles like “I Can Feel the Love,” “Wonder Years,” “It’s Good to Be Back,” etc.), they’re all shot through with the pain and sadness of someone who’s suffered more than his fair share of rejection and loneliness. The love in “With Love We Find Hope” is the kind of love that saves you after you’ve been “punched in the face”; the idyllic childhood in “Wonder Years” is contrasted with an adulthood in which “we started to want too much.” and in which all Mission Man wants is to “live today like I’m a kid, OK?” But you get the sense that he doesn’t quite succeed.
Musically, it’s not all the tuneless noodling of a self-taught outsider. “I Can Feel the Love” adds a little dubstep whomp to the chorus; “Livin'” features wah-wah guitar and a full-on disco beat, although it does eventually dissolve into a chaotic mess of noisy piano runs. This is still a Mission Man album, after all.
The most striking song on the album is “Wonder Years,” in no small part because it’s a cappella: Stripped of his quirky instrumentation, and without a beat to follow, Mission Man’s lyrics get to stand on their own, and in places, they’re startlingly beautiful: “There were no sad truths to get in the way/There wasn’t hope, I didn’t need it/I already lived like I was dreaming.” If Mission Man’s palpable desire to return to that carefree childhood (real or imagined? who cares?) doesn’t tug at your heartstrings a little, your heart might be in need of a tuneup.
Mish ends the album with “Extra,” a song about how a casually offered compliment can turn around your whole day. “You look extra today,” goes the chorus. “Extra tall, extra smart, extra talented, extra sexy, extra amazing.” And in this live clip shot last month, extra smooth, if we do say so. Gary’s got some new dance moves!
You can pick up M” in Mission Man’s online store for just $10 for the CD or $5 for the download. Buy a copy and you’ll make him feel extra amazing. You might even feel kind of amazing yourself.