Black Milk


(Fat Beats; 2008)

By Chet Betz | 30 October 2008

You know that clip from Fade to Black where Timbaland’s demoing beats for Jay-Z? Wait, this is the Internet, here:

Yeah, you see that look on Jay’s face around the two-minute mark? If my face looked anything like Hov’s it would have looked exactly like that for the majority of my first listen to Black Milk’s Tronic. In the vid Jay is clearly disgusted by the sheer illness of what he’s hearing. Sickened by the heat. Jigga’s in pain. And now I’m feeling the same thing. Actually, I think Black Milk’s feeling it, too.

This 25 year-old Detroit native is dealing with the same conundrum that plagues every underground rap figure who knows, unequivocally, that he/she has the talent to blow minds and make Jay-Z grimace. It’s an industry politics issue that I touched upon in my review of the mostly Black Milk-produced Elzhi and Mark expounded upon in his review of the strongly Black Milk-influenced Buff1 (an issue gracefully eluded by the only twice Black Milk-touched Invincible): how to escape with integrity from the netherworld between the underground and the mainstream, conscious and commercial—a somewhat false dichotomy reinforced by the perceptions of fans and suits alike. But it’s built-in; there are aspects of success and appealing to as many different kinds of people as possible that are inherent to the very nature of hip-hop as a cultural movement. Complacently feeding into aging trends and niche parameters for the sake of limited business (too clever that here Black Milk fesses up to being “caught in the Matrix” through classic Primo scratches?) is the shaping crisis of the Detroit hip-hop scene and is conjoined with trying to step out from Dilla’s posthumous shadow, the aesthetic pool starting to smell stagnant with Milk as guilty as anyone. Was as guilty as anyone, I should clarify. In The Preface piece I claimed greatness “is a paradigm shift away.”

Oh, paradigm shift, hi.

See, Invincible refused to be shaped, her Shapeshifters affecting its revolution on a content level; Erykah Badu’s less genre-bound, more national, uber-transcendent New Amerykah (AOTY) did it on every level; the solution of Tronic, largely, is to put aside arguments, forget former stylistic philosophies, and subjugate concepts to one supreme ideal: make rap beats that are dope as fuck. It succeeds. Wildly.

In fact, “Without U” is the only track still caught in the limbo the rest of the record leaves behind, dope beat aspirations foregone for radio play aspirations, for a brand of cross-over success that doesn’t exist and Fat Beats wouldn’t be able to manufacture even if it did—no matter how much their press release talks about hook-crooner Colin Munroe being a YouTube phenom. Milk’s beat is chipper and his life is great “Without U,” bitches. U are faceless and unreal. But let’s not dwell on the mediocre or neglect to applaud Fat Beats for treating this album as more major than they treat themselves. Because they’re right, Tronic is major. Milk’s nodding, his face “scrunched up,” to quote Pharrell’s turn in Fade to Black. Spurred by the level of his own production work, Milk’s doing his best shit yet on the mic, rapping to catch up—and through breathless urgency and humble rhythmic and melodic submission to his better half (the half behind the boards) he achieves a sonorous synergy with these implacable grooves. Most of Black Milk’s raps are about how hot Black Milk’s beats are, simple schemes miming what’s beneath until everything blurs into pure musicality. Listen to “Try” as it illustrates this in every way possible.

Usually an artist that drops an album like this deserves a little back story delivered in the review, but since any self-respecting music lover will give this album a shot, Black Milk’s saved me the trouble with his opener—so just keep that in mind when (not if) you listen to it. On “Long Story Short” Black Milk uses his raps to chronicle Black Milk past while he uses his beat to introduce us to Black Milk present. And Black Milk present is a jaw-dropper, piano etude giving way to shining synth anthem that’d make Lil Wayne feel big enough to eat the sun. The best part, though, is how Dwele’s featured but he only opens his mouth to play his trumpet. Which glibly raises an important point: Black Milk’s not just indulging himself with Sylvers samples any more. Tronic is the best collection of beats since Hell Hath No Fury (2006) because Black Milk advances and diversifies his methods while staying true to his distinct vision, leaving in his studio smoking tread marks that, peeling, start from his very rooted past and blaze into the horizon…

…Lingering comparisons to Dilla aside. Okayplayer’s boards inform me that “Losing Out” sounds like an update on a beat from a 2002 Dilla tape (a tape that only the underground-versed throngs on OKP would know about, anyways); but then most of these cats point out that Milk’s beat is better. That’s six years difference so “we have the technology”; still, it’s a shock akin to Bible-belters praising a cloned animal because it’s an improvement on God’s prototype. Maybe the Dilla faithful realize that the only sacrilege here would be to deny Milk’s prowess. And it’s not like the disciple has completely forsaken the old ways, it’s just that he’s personalized his faith in a way that’s smart and effective. “Try” is an obvious touchstone to ye olde Detroit, the titular soul loop unblinking, indelible, neatly parsed into an irresistible nod. But then you have a track like “Overdose” where the hip-hop standard of deconstruction tips over into destruction then digestion, the vocal sample(s) micro-maligned and managed until they sound frighteningly modular, the texture tweaked and tweaking. “Overdose,” indeed; source reveals at the end and…the Field just shit his pants.

Elsewhere Black Milk turns to his Korgs more than ever before. “Hold It Down” is like Timbolake made just tough enough for rapping; Milk assembles a chortling key line, farting synth bass, assorted sound effects, and vocal burps into a futurist bounce that’s song cousins with this record’s own, um, “Bounce.” Sorry to spoil the surprise but watch out for when Milk announces the breakdown on “Hold It Down” because it’s a little perverse, its whine so sick it’s stomach-churning. Which is as hot as Milk thinks it is. “Bounce,” by the way, has 2008’s most mesmerizing non-progression, a slow back-and-forth between rapid synth arpeggios that spread two phases over eight bars apiece, the second phase reaching upward and joined by a harmonic oscillation. Here Milk molds a small space where crunk can be as spatially cerebral and flecked with melancholy as minimal techno. Then “Hell Yeah” is like all the awesome shit I’ve mentioned so far melted down into one banger that blisters on contact. Tricked-out synths, creepy vocal manipulations, a chop off a block crumbled and stoked into smoldering embers: Black Milk now has every shade of fire on his palette. And that’s really what binds Tronic across its varying arrangements of focus on live, synthesized, and sampled—Black Milk’s compositional principles for bringing the heat. Which:

Black Milk’s How To Make Fire

-Drums that do their duty but play around in the details and fills.

-A core loop or line that figure-eights out endless intrigue.

-Small change-ups threaded carefully into a consistent grind.

-A handful of weird-ass sounds sown like seeds of unusual fruit across a field of tracks.

As perceived and floridly worded by me, anyways. Half beat, half hard funk jam, “Give the Drummer Sum” (track review) is the exception that doubly proves the rule since it’s less an exception than it is an extrapolation to extremes (with a flip of Milk’s script). Not exactly dutiful or playful, the drum line here is an audacious wreck of kicks against snares with a tiny hat hit between; this is the core hook, the grind of the drums constant as the live instrumentation plops the change-ups on top. I’m counting the pitched voice on the pre-hook as a “weird-ass sound.” But just the drums are kind of weird, too. Milk lets the instruments play out at the end; this is symptomatic of one of the most telling changes between Popular Demand (2007) and Tronic. While the former only had independent outros the latter sometimes lets us watch the main tracks (e.g. “Bounce,” “Losing Out,” even “Without U”) unravel. As natural as procreation and decay, Black Milk’s birthing musical organisms and then at their demise he picks them apart, a vulture at his own beats’ bones.

On gorgeous “Reppin for U” Milk talks about spitting “until the beat collapse” before detailing his place in the game, a place he inhabits out of dedication. With closing song proper “Bond 4 Life (Music)” he allegorically professes his love for H.E.R. before a multi-tracked guitar solo aptly, righteously, raptures itself off into the underlying beat’s squishy soft-hop nirvana, ala CL Smooth’s “Lots of Lovin’.” I know that sounds gross but so did sex the first time your folks explained it to you. Post-coital Black Milk can’t resist throwing us one more morsel of a beat with the “Elec” outro, himself chanting, “Gimme that / More of that / Holla, holla, holla.” He’s hooked on his own product. So Black Milk, a producer whose work was almost subconscious in its traditionalism, has had a breakthrough. That his questioning of his own production just ends up sounding like the more adventurous play of his subconscious is, for the listener, a deal-clincher. In the process he’s re-aligning not just his but our perspective of hip-hop, Detroit or otherwise, as repetition-based music.

Is Tronic a reference to the heavier electronic influence? To The Chronic (1992)? Probably both? Tron? At any rate, add Dr. Dre (along with Timbaland) to the list of producers (Dilla, Premier, Pete Rock) now subsumed in Black Milk’s amalgamatic approach upon fierce individuality. No longer human, he’s a creature of sovereign instinct with synthesizers, samplers, and conductor’s wands for limbs. This is what RZA wishes new RZA sounded like. Milk’s not reinventing the wheel and he’s driving forward on the same road as his contemporaries, but his suspension is so uninhibited and the noise coming out of his speakers so knockin’, he might might as well be in a hovercraft. This, then, is the future fashioned out of the stuffs of past and present, out of maintaining a firm aesthetic while employing a staggering array of techniques, out of reaching for the proverbial stars. Tronic hits with the intrinsic revelation and self-evident relevance of new truth. We are all witnesses. And I can’t get the pained look off my face.