I’ve written about Black Milk a few times before. I jump at the chance to review any album featuring his production. He’s one of the great Hip Hop talents to emerge from Detroit in the last decade. No Poison, No Paradise was released one year ago, and If There’s A Hell Below offers a good chance to see what kind of musical development Curtis Cross has undergone in the span of a calendar year.
(This is the part where you listen to the album)
Black Milk has always had a knack for creating outstanding beats. He’s never been great as a rapper, though. He’s been good, even hella good, but never great. His first verse on the album is the most polished I’ve heard him. I had to double-check the tracklist to make sure it wasn’t a guest. Man, if this guy ever raps this way over an entire album, I will need to look no further to soundtrack for my funeral.
“What It’s Worth” was the first track released from the album and it was an indicator that Black Milk has some challenges preoccupying his mind. He raps about keeping his mom out of the trap and about making his city proud through rap, themes that are noble and tired. I think the album title is a nod to Curtis Mayfield, but I could be wrong. It sure sounds like Mayfield at the end of “What It’s Worth.”
The organ and horns that introduce “Leaves the Bones Behind” cede the spotlight to the ever-layered vocals of Aaron Abernathy, who has collaborated with Milk in the past on tracks like “Parallels” and “Gospel Psychedelic Rock.” There’s very little percussion, just a tight snare tap every once and a while. The result is gorgeous, as our host trades bars with California stalwart Blu. However, I would complain that at times Blu’s voice is drowned out by the massive melody Black Milk set up. It could be that Blu literally phoned in his verse or recorded it elsewhere, making mastering a challenge. It’s frustrating because it distracts from an otherwise excellent song.
The end of the track and the next song, “Quarter Water,” have elements of J Dilla’s turn of the century production like Welcome 2 Detroit or his chilly production on Common’s “Heat.” The venerable Pete Rock steps onto the scene to tell tales and impart wisdom. This song harkens back to simpler times when money was made by selling penny candy and bottles of water for a quarter. I can relate to this; I used to buy soda from Big Lots and sell ‘em for double. As Milk says, “You all in or you rarely getting’ by / all we really wanted was a piece of the pie.” The song goes on to speak of a level I never reached, selling drugs out of the house to make even more money.
Black Milk has thrown horns into his songs before, from the Jack White collaboration “Brain” back to his work with Dwele on “Long Story Short” on Tronic. “Hell Below” is a smooth interlude that serves to bisect the album. Whoa momma, “Detroit’s New Dance Show” is something else, owing more to house and techno than to Hip Hop. Whatever else you may call it, call it a fucking banger. Again, we can hear him test the limits of his rapping. Six albums deep, he’s still experimenting, trying to find his voice – such is the curse of the producer. Perhaps it isn’t such a curse though as it is refreshing to hear a rapper alter his cadence and delivery from song to song. There’s little stylistic consistency, but that’s a small price to pay for consistent freshness, and thus Black Milk is Hip Hop’s farmer’s market.
Black Milk takes some liberties with the beat on “Story and Her,” incorporating a bouncy guitar riff that the Bee Gees might like returned. It’s the tale of a hook-up gone wrong, although it’s not as gruesome as the hellscape Royce Da 5’9” created on “Part of Me” a few years ago. I’m not going to spoil the story for you, but it’s an unsettling sound mostly because of the cackling female laughter interspersed between verses.
The rapping fell off on the last track though as Black Milk sounded disconnected and hung-over (that may have been for dramatic effect, but I didn’t like it). Thankfully, we return to what I guess you may call “vintage Black Milk” on “All Mighty.” This has all the elements I hear in Black Milk’s artistic evolution: the beat will change but the drums will always take charge; the samples in the background sound massive and occasionally mechanical; there is harmonic singing between verses; and Black Milk usually takes a few bars to fall into a rap rhythm where he sounds comfortable. This is his boast track and it’s emphatic without being obnoxious, which means that it’s a pretty good boast track. There’s a way to say “listen to me” or “look at me” without being an asshole, and Black Milk’s got that part – relative humility – down pat.
Hallelujah, Random Axe returns! The rap trio – your host plus Guilty Simpson and Sean Price of Heltah Skeltah – dropped an album in 2011, but haven’t been heard from under that random-ass banner since. The beat Guilty Simpson raps over is one of my least favorite Black Milk production examples ever, which is unfortunate because Guilty’s one of Detroit’s most malicious-sounding wordsmith. Black Milk rips his verse, just rips it… check this shit out:
“Where those lil dudes reach for Rugers,
Never surf the Internet, never owned computers.
You know the name, don’t know the face, then he the mover,
Whoever’s quietest in the room, the he the shooter,
The old heads don’t understand, asking how come?
We don’t think like Martin, while Malcolm was the outcome.
Any means necessary, yeah, where I’m from,
While I had pops, most grew up without one.”
Black Milk’s fondness for beat-switching bites him on the aforementioned cut, but the beat on “Gold Piece” is flawless. A sample of Ghostface Killah’s “Apollo Kids” intro leads into one of the hardest songs on the album and Bun B offers some choice, legend-quality advice: “Son, I’mma tell you like your daddy would, don’t play around with this boy grippin’ Caddy wood.” The beat is just so enticing that I can’t hear anything else; hearing it makes me laugh aloud and look over my shoulder for danger at the same time. Black Milk is a master of his craft, word to Parquet Courts, and he picks the perfect time to ease off and let the beat breathe.
And just like that’s we’re out of the tunnel, emerging into “Grey for Summer,” a piano-driven floater. The distant, echoing vocals in the back allow Black Milk to reflect on what’s going: “This a product of that, smoke ‘til it’s ashes / store liquor, pour it in a cup that’s plastic.” It’s a good song for walking on a cold day, with subdued percussion fading in and out of the song. On the album closer, “Up & Out,” Black Milk puts his spin on Mayfield’s ancient proclamation:
“You seen hell before, my niggas already lived it,
If there’s a hell below, then we already in it.
Tell your white friends, “Doe, come and pay us a visit.”
Our neighborhoods don’t look like their, don’t be scared
When you see teddy bears on light poles everywhere you see,
Streets watching everywhere you be.”
A dismal summary, but likely an honest one; Detroit hasn’t gotten any better. Black Milk’s music reflects the hardship of growing up in America’s skeleton with dreams of anything better. This is not floss at the club music, this isn’t even getting into the club music. It’s music about getting to any place where going to the club seems like a possibility.