In conversation, SA rapper Milli Mars speaks at AK-pace, throwing out images and brisk ideas as fast as the ears and brain can connect to keep up with it all.
So it's no surprise that his newest release Red Klay is a massive and quick-witted project with 24 tracks on deck.
Is it an album? A mixtape? "Why save it?" asks Mars. "This is how I felt right now at this moment. It's just a body of music. Everybody keeps asking me, 'is this a mixtape?' It's too fucking good to be a mixtape. It's like a big ass album."
The taxonomic rift between the album and mixtape in hip-hop is sort of a false difference anyway. "A lot of people's mixtapes sell more than the albums, or that's the only stuff you've heard of an artist," says Mars. "And then there's pressure on him 'cause he's like 'oh shit I have to do my album now.' Your album sucks. Your mixtape is dope as fuck though. So what are you? You're not an artist, you got lucky."
Inspired by conversations with fans, Mars molded his persona to a more honest shape for Red Klay. Where older works like Toyotomi and YMID find Mars with his chest puffed way out, the new effort develops Mars from persona into person. "A lady came up to me after a show and said, 'I love your music. And I feel you and what you're talking about. I just want to feel you vulnerable, how are you vulnerable?'"
Still, it'd be a stretch to call Red Klay timid. In the first few bars of the opening cut "Mars," he fashions himself as the enemy who has yet to reveal himself. "Whose dreams are these niggas chasing? / I don't think they know who they facing," he rhymes, over the cut-up boom bap.
With his raspy timbre flowing through the album, Mars touches on a wide spectrum of hip-hop. From slowed-up bedroom anthems like "Talking Bout" to the obstreperous trap of "My Bad," Mars responds to the beat with an elastic grin. "The beat is talking to me, we're having a conversation," he says. "With the beats, there's so many places you can go. It's a road and you can open up on it, but people want to drive straight. You gotta treat it like a playground."
Or, as he puts it in rhyme, "lucky I'm a juggernaut that learned to juggle a lot."
Red Klay also owes an inspirational nod to the legacy of Texas hip-hop—some pitch drops, a purple Sprite slowness and the scale-tipping influence of weed all make their case on the album. But it's far from an homage to the Houston sound. Mars points to Lone Star rebel rappers the Geto Boys as a model of carving out a personal Southern aesthetic. "They didn't sound like they were from Texas," says Mars. "You just knew that they were. When people go for a Texas feel, it's because it's popular. Southern music is popular."
The album marks the first effort for Mars since parting with his WZKD collective, a split that Mars cites as an opportunity for growth. "Instead of trying to reach 50/50 with someone, I just got to do what I wanted to do," he says. "It's a molding of me, Mars, red planet, Red Klay. I wanted to give them all of me, everything that I'd been through."
It's his most lyrically strong album to date, with all emphasis placed on Mars' images and language. Memorable lines on lust ("red shirt with no bottoms like Winnie the Pooh") and wisdom ("life's like a good blunt, sorry if it passed you") fire off left and right in his bars. On "Champion," one of Red Klay's best, Mars leans on the image-packed Kanye West style of internal logic—"Been grinding since Oregon trail and stage coaches, lost a few oxen but that bull ain't important."
With all the career growth ready to burst from the soil of Red Klay, Mars appears ecstatic for what's next, while hanging to strong ties in San Antonio. "My heart grew like the Grinch's the first day a mosh pit happened at my show," he says. "I'm probably the first man that ever wanted to cry at seeing a mosh pit. Are y'all running into each other? For me?"
Milli Mars Red Klay Release feat. Femina-X
Free, 9pm Friday, January 23, K23 Gallery, 702 Fredericksburg, (210) 776-5635, k23gallery.com