The lights go dark and anticipation builds in the New Frontier Theater, the Quezon City venue where Ez Mil is due to play his first ever show in the Philippines. Though Ezekiel Miller is better known as a rapper, having lit the Filipino digital sphere aflame with his song ‘Panalo (Trap Cariñosa)’ in 2021, he chooses to begin the set by singing over a keyboard line. Nevertheless, the audience – predominantly millennial and Gen Z, most of whom are probably attending their first live concert since the lockdowns – showers him with adulation.
This April 29 show kicked off Miller’s Homecoming Tour of the Philippines. In between songs, Ez asks the crowd in Tagalog: “Do y’all know what I’m singing next?” The playful question is met with equal parts silence and confusion from an audience that knows him for the one song. What else could Ez Mil possibly perform besides ‘Panalo’?
When Miller gave an impassioned performance of the 2020 song on the Wish USA Bus for a video that was uploaded to YouTube on January 29, 2021, he couldn’t have known what was to come. The performance blew up – it has 73million views to date – with fans praising his fiery, Eminem-esque flow, its sampling of the Cariñosa, the tune for a traditional Filipino folk dance, and his trilingual rapping in English, Tagalog and Ilocano.
But ‘Panalo’ also turned Miller into a lightning rod in the media, thanks to a historical inaccuracy in its lyrics about the Filipino national hero Lapu-Lapu that prompted emphatic responses from government bodies and politicians (the mayor of Lapu-Lapu City wanted the rapper banned from the area). The song also ignited spirited discussions about colourism and class in the Philippines and toxic positivity.
The conversations surrounding ‘Panalo’ were polarising. It was easy to conflate the criticism with crab mentality, or the culture of tearing others down when they get ahead – which is embedded in Filipino culture, Miller tells NME. “Growing up, loyalty was very scarce,” he says in a Zoom interview a week after the Quezon City concert. “Crab mentality happens a lot here, where people pull each other downward.”
It’s why he’s always craved “a core fanbase” – which ‘Panalo’ gave him, he says, in spite of all the controversy. He sees a change in the horizon: “I do see a future where [crab mentality] can be completely gone because we all came from the same place.”
“If we do choose to go cutthroat with our topics, we’re representatives when discussing topics [of] social and economic change”
To understand Miller’s desire to be accepted by Filipino fans, it helps to know his origin story. The 23-year-old was born in the Philippines and grew up in Olongapo City, three hours northwest of Manila. After graduating from high school, he moved to Baguio to study architecture but dropped out after a year and a half. He moved to Urdaneta City in Pangasinan for another two years before leaving for the U.S., where he lived in Seattle, California, and Las Vegas, which he now calls home.
Like many artists of his generation, Miller recorded music in his bedroom, often with his sister Raynn, with whom he still collaborates today. Upon getting to Vegas, he started taking it more seriously, even shooting his music videos himself. While working at Burger King, “I would look for people to give a helping hand,” he recalls. “I told them, ‘Yo, bro, can you get my phone and hold it like this?’” He reflects, “The people who were there to hold the camera were the real ones who saw something in me.”
Even though he’s now signed to Virgin Music in the United States, Miller still brought that DIY approach to his upcoming album, ‘DU4LI7Y’, which is due for release this summer. Its first single, ‘Re-Up,’ features Raynn’s vocals on the infectious hook, with Miller himself arranging the different layers of audio atop each other. He returns to his past life as a deathcore musician on the opening track, ‘Rapture’, where he channels his growly-voiced alter ego, Slashmouth.
It made sense to kick the album off with ‘Rapture’ as ‘DU4LI7Y’ is a “journey from dark to light,” he explains, in contrast to his 2020 album ‘Act 1,’ which had an opposite trajectory. In April, he released the single ‘Dalawampu’t Dalawang Oo (2200)’, a love letter to Olongapo City. In it, he unleashes a lifetime’s worth of pent-up rage as he stands up for his hometown: “Hoy, ang sarap pugutan ng ulo / kung sinoman yung tang-inang nagsabi ng ‘Basta Gapo, bano’!”
Miller says he finds catharsis in that lyric, which hits back at city condescension towards the provinces as encapsulated in ‘Basta Gapo, bano’, an insult that loosely translates to ‘anyone from Olangapo is incompetent’. “It’s like finally [giving] a slap [to] the face of people who said that phrase.”
“I’m not too outspoken about just saying anything and anyone’s name to get a reaction”
It’s not quite the same as declaring that Lapu-Lapu was beheaded in the Battle of Mactan, as Miller incorrectly rapped in ‘Panalo’. He once defended his right to creative liberties – “Am I gonna close it out with absolute truth, or am I gonna make people talk about it?” he asked rhetorically after ‘Panalo’ went viral – but now appears to have changed tack.
Asked how he’s grown since his previous material, Miller says: “I would say I’m not too outspoken about just saying anything and anyone’s name to get a reaction… Now you’ve found your platform, you do have to be careful with how you say things because now the kids are listening.” In the wake of ‘Panalo,’ he’s realised how a rapper can become a “revolutionary spokesperson”. “If we do choose to go cutthroat with our topics, we’re representatives when discussing topics [of] social and economic change,” he reflects.
Miller tries that spokesperson role again on ‘27 Bodies’, his new single released last Friday. It will sound familiar to his fans, as it’s a polished recording of his entry in Filipino DJ Mark Beats’ 24 Bars Challenge, which he uploaded on YouTube in April 2020. It was the height of the lockdowns, which severely hampered his ability to promote the album ‘Act 1’. “Those limitations were something else,” he groans. “I just got on it all pissed and let off some steam.” That freestyle served as Miller’s coming-out party for Filipino hip-hop heads and has since racked up almost 8million views.
The structure of ‘27 Bodies’ itself mirrors the growth he’s described. The first half features his verse from the Mark Beats challenge, dripping with audacity and braggadocio in a bid for your attention. And now that you’re listening, Miller gets real in the second half, unloading his frustrations on never-ending cycles of poverty and the manipulation of fake news.
When ‘DU4LI7Y’ drops, though, you won’t find Miller in permanent call-out mode. After all, he’s only 23. “You want people the same age as you to listen to you,” he says. “They’re your peers, you want them to hear your craft and be like, ‘Ooh, damn, that’s Ez right there, I’ve been on him!’
“You still need fun music to jive with,” he stresses. “Don’t do too much of this, don’t do too much of that. There’s a little gray area where you operate, as Tony Stark would say. He told that to Peter Parker.”
Ez Mil’s ‘27 Bodies’ is out now, with the album ‘DU4LI7Y’ on the way