Album of the Year
(Fat Beats; 2010)
By Chet Betz | 15 September 2010
The first thought that pings across the brain as Black Milk finishes explaining on his opener that Album of the Year is about all the heavy/celebratory life experiences riddling the time between the beatific Tronic (2008) and this, his new opus with designs on “magnum,” is that, basically, the more things change the more things stay the same. Because as he finishes introducing his work, his work introduces itself for real; out the entrails of an elliptical horn line (courtesy of Sam Beaubien, Arranger) spews a ridiculous chain of live snare hits and curt cymbal splashes (courtesy of Daru Jones, Animal), pumping crudely on top of sleazy bass (Tim Shellaberger, not sleazy). Second thoughts, then, upon the beat’s arrival? Dilla re-animated and psychotic. Madlib with a rough ‘n tumble ensemble, a busted gain control, and crack substituting for weed. A sequencer with heartburn. A sequencer with a sunheart.
Milk’s former methodology holds, as I’ve said before: monster drums, mystic loops, mad effects, minute yet multitudinous change-ups. I’ll say it again. Here the electronic elements are a bit toned down (they don’t really dominate any track except for “Warning [Keep Bouncing],” the subtitle a likely conscious continuation of the stellar “Bounce” from Tronic) and it sometimes feels like Milk is going for “Give the Drummer Sum” x12, but still I say it again. In short, I could almost just refer you to my Tronic review. A lot of it still holds true for this record—even if there is more brashness here, less variety and lightning in the bottle. But the subtle difference between that record and this one is what is, in equal measure, promising and disappointing. I think in Black Milk a lot of us were hoping for a fresh and hard Timbaland with a new fetish for Dilla, not so much a fresh and hard Roots with a not so new fetish for Dilla. Clay states that “the period of time wherein we thought Black Milk might make challenging/revolutionary music should now be over. Tronic was close but not it. We will now have to settle for him making excellent but straightforward hip-hop.” And there’s some truth to that statement, for sure. Although I’ve already gone into how it’s a masterful banger, single “Deadly Medley” would be a Popular Demand (2007) throwback if it weren’t for the forward look of its dissonant contrasts. Compare that to how select tracks from Tronic hit with a clarity of purpose and a piercing vision that was chilling, dopeness born of music that was its own dimension, a universe where street corners form Penrose stairs and chrome rims roll to Gary Numan.
Album of the Year bears some marks of that dimension, for sure, but pushes farther back and sideways, trading in a lot of the synthetics for more organics, which sounds healthy and current but not exactly the stuff that androids dream of. Milk, turns out, has little use for electric sheep. His humanity is proven more in this, in the growing fleshliness of his production, then in the conceptual attempt of the album to focus on the personal happenings of the year past. Recounting on a track like opener “365” just can’t disentangle itself from bragging, hedonism, and warning off haters. “Distortion,” ostensibly, is a rumination on death but finds a way to couch that in terms of getting girls to take off their clothes and making money quick and how Milk came away from losses with “tough skin.” It’s sensitive cred rap. Which sounds cold of me (maybe I’m the android) but I don’t think it’s too debatable that Milk’s identity as an artist is for the most part defined by his beats. He could rap about nothing so long as he continued to rap rhythmically, to provide just another musical consonance to his ferocious mixes that devour everything, that eat up red space and threaten to break down the molecules of the equipment that give birth to and contain them. It’s only right that they swallow Milk’s words, too, and on “Distortion” the arrangement takes over in such a confident way, it coolly validates the linguistic extant.
So if this is Roots 2.0 it’s Black Milk as more ?uestlove than Black Thought but ?uestlove as a fucking giant and with a name change, like !uestlove. The Black Thought part’s about nonexistent in the !uestlove shadow. What I’m saying is that, in its most ambitious moments, Album of the Year is like the Roots except totally not. I’m talking jazz, man. I love good jazz and Milk must love it, too, must get hype to some fusion. On long-form tracks like “Distortion,” “Round of Applause,” and “Closed Chapter” the music stretches, shifts, collapses, blossoms. On Tronic Milk deconstructed his sources and compositions, tracks like “Bounce” and “Losing Out” falling apart at the seams as they closed; with “Overdose” he immersed us in the musical equivalent of a loop of high-speed capture on component trajectories from an explosion, then at the end reversed it to show how all the gorgeous carnage originated from one pretty little vocal sample. With Album of the Year he doesn’t deconstruct, he uses instrumental interplay to elaborate; the slow decline of “Closed Chapter” into a collected murmur of its motifs is one of Milk’s most graceful movements to date. Where once Milk employed mad science now he takes of the knowledge dropped from the more established unorthodoxy of hard bop. You could call it “safer.” But in a time where jazz has almost no place in popular music, I don’t know that “safer” is the best word. It’s retrogression.
It’s like Dilla’s two heirs apparent, Flying Lotus and Black Milk, have both settled into their own separate, opposite paths of carrying Dilla’s legacy into the now and beyond. The former warps the space/time continuum and genre boundaries. The latter warps all your old records and puts a live band with warped instruments in your ear drum. So as to warp it. That is, Lotus warps hip-hop; Black Milk warps hip-hop listening. You don’t have to be a head to listen to Flying Lotus. If you listen to Black Milk you are a head, because the essence of head is what Milk’s tapping, for he is the quintessential head—to the extent that his music can’t just be head music because he has too much love for all that other shit that we heads love besides hip-hop. “Gospel Psychedelic Rock” is a title that names some of “that other shit,” Milk flashing at the start a sample that reeks of dug crates, a perhaps unlikely source that he chops and twists into his constant destination—for Milk all roads lead to hip-hop. But for Milk that also means that hip-hop is just the place where all roads meet. On “Round of Applause” you’ve got Eastern key lines, Afrobeat percussion on amphetamines, sinister horn accents, Milk manipulating something into what sounds almost like a chugging clap, but all of that just a scintillating set-up for the phase where the piano starts riffing and the breakdown comes not through Milk as producer but Milk as band leader, shouting in the background of the tape, “on the one…bring it back…on the one…bring it back…” Album of the Year is like listening to On the Corner (1972) as interpreted by the Bomb Squad. It’s the Bomb Squad as interpreted by On the Corner. It’s Art Ensemble of Chicago via Pro Tools. It’s Pro Tools via saxophone.
There’s a stunning balance between fluid variations and deviations that in total feel like improvisation and the strictly confined, loping-in-circles gait of traditional hip-hop—a process which then lends itself to being described as simultaneously dynamic and hypnotic, loose and hard, jam and the jam. Even as I listen to it I’m not sure how Milk works it so intuitively, just that he does. The paradox thrills. The Roots supposedly do something like this, too, except that they totally don’t. The Roots = Grateful Dead for the Obama era. The closest sonic kin to Album of the Year, really, dropped the same year its immediate precessor did: 2008, the year of Tronic and the year of the first part of New Amerykah. In a way this is as much the album of that year as it is this one, and while it lacks anything close to the poignancy of content in New Amerykah and Badu’s distinction as a vocalist, it is the greatest successor to that album’s naturalistic evolution of the hip-hop aesthetic. Its other trappings are practically unnecessary.
I mean, there’s definitely some posturing going on. The baiting of the title is nowhere more clearly evident than in an ill-advised and unfunny skit at the end of “Black and Brown” (an elegantly bruising rap duet with Danny Brown), where Milk tries to typify his detractors, thus imagining, only sorta pre-empting, and in effect willfully creating his own backlash. Elsewhere creating some more backlash by biting that Doom line about memory cards. But, ultimately, these are just more words to be swallowed up by living music. The title of this record doesn’t work according to however it is Black Milk intends it or however it is he thinks it’ll be misinterpreted. The record’s title fits because the music it names is powerful, fearless, and yet a somewhat faceless visceral bludgeon. 2010 is turning out to be a great year for music and—with the release of records like Cosmogramma, Sir Lucious Left Foot, Str8 Killa, and maybe even the upcoming Kanye West jawn—an exciting year for hip-hop. On Album of the Year Milk perfectly soundtracks the very sensation of being excited about hip-hop and all its messy, feverish possibilities; and I think that’s because that excitement is what’s going on in Milk’s head and soul, non-stop. So no matter how Milk tries to frame his records or himself, his art is always showing us the same thing: hip-hop past, present, and future all rolled up into one life-giving ball of straight heat.