Miles Duke’s Zone Out (EP): A Review

There’s a new rapper on the scene, and he’s got an English degree.

On June 19, 2012, Miles Duke released Zone Out, his first EP, available for free download on Media Fire here . And ‘personal’ is the word from the first lyrics spat. From his eating habits, to his taste in women, to his sometimes manic delivery in search of a solid meaning for life itself, Duke’s heart beats out his chest in every song with freshness and vulnerability. Yet, what’s most personal about Zone Out is the raw clearness of Duke’s thought-process. Here’s an analogy: “Pop Champagne” provides virtually no insight into Jim Jones the person; the song wasn’t made to get to know him, but to feel a little hood while admiring how well he’s done for himself. Conversely, Duke’s approach to song-writing takes having nothing to prove as its starting point.

You’re not supposed to know that Ghostface Killah’s real name is Dennis Coles for a reason. It contrasts with Wu-Tang’s image. So, in the absence of an image, Duke takes to making his own one tune at a time.

His lyrics are surrealist, stream of consciousness poetry that reward in proportion to the attention you put in. It becomes clear after a few minutes that, as listeners, we are meant to follow Duke’s thought process much like we are the protagonists of David Foster Wallace stories: we are asked to be entertained by the act of communing. The opening track, “Inspiration,” begins with atmospheric synths with vocal harmonies on top; Duke promises a “positive space ” with “dollops of taste,” thus setting the album up as an aesthetic affair, a Nabokovian series of explorations of how rhythm and poetry can affect the senses.

“Now” is an energetic, head-banging piece that contains an important meta moment for the album as a whole: the line, “my cadence is far from basic,” coupled with Duke’s proclamation of his “mission with diction,” forms a mission statement that is for diction as well. Specifically, for a change in mainstream hip-hop’s underestimation of the power of words to affect people’s behavior. Zone Out is composed of fragmented, semantically saturated confessions that demand listener participation rather than passive consumption; it is largely brand-name-free.

If a sliver of meaning is unlocked, or if a petal of beauty successfully crosses Duke’s cerebral bone barrier into yours, his purpose of reaching you with his soul rather than with guns and girls is validated.

Beginning from the two-minute mark, the tittle track contains the most memorable bars of the album. As soon as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is name-dropped, the rapper is clearly sparked by it, unleashing deconstructed stanzas with complete confidence in himself (as well as the rare mid-bar pause). The absence of choruses, a hallmark of underground hip-hop, affords Duke this explosive freedom and, when coupled with the pop-crossover beats that take up most of the album, reveals his mainstream influences under the veil of a challenge: to determine whether there would ever be a context in which what we’re hearing is a hit song. If not, why?

Check out the Zone Out album cover.