Black Milk

Popular Demand

(Fat Beats; 2007)

By Chet Betz | 12 April 2007

Here come the Dilla survivors. If recently Warp-signed Flying Lotus is exploring the Dilla sound at its most experimental and synthetic, then Detroit native Curtis Cross a.k.a. Black Milk has latched onto the side of Dilla that's most immediate and organic; and if Lotus extends Dilla's more avant instrumentalism into new territories, Black Milk continues the producer/mc tradition with slightly better rapping. Opener/title track exposes the foundation: Milk talks about a Midwest hip-hop revolution in the same breath that he shirks off labels like "backpacker" and accepts "underground" only with qualifiers. Perhaps too conscious of being typecast in a role he's wont to reject, Milk lyrically goes the other way with these songs -- the other way being that which is away from things like concepts and social consciousness and towards things like braggadocio and sexcapades. However, he doesn't out-step realism. On "Popular Demand" he might be eyeing the Escalade, but he's still in "the Range." "Three + Sum" spends over four minutes (the longest track present) trying to convince us that Milk did indeed have a three-way, and if you don't believe him he's got it on tape; Cam'ron would drop maybe four bars about such a thing and just take for granted that everyone accepts it as fact. Black Milk knows that we don't know him yet.

It's easy enough to get familiar when Milk gives us beats like these. In interviews Milk's quick to dispel crate-mining myths, saying that he doesn't have thousands of records but just "good records." And the music here grooves just like what you'd think from someone who operates out of Detroit and whose two favorite groups are the Jackson Five and the Sylvers. More often than not it's just a couple loops, a bass line, and slightly sloppy drums (if Milk uses the grid on the snare and kick, chances are he went manual and loose with the high-hat). But Milk's blessed with a great ear and he's a natural with the chops and drops and that raw talent imbues this work with that elusive "it" factor -- or what Randy calls the "yo" and Simon calls the "wow" and Paula hits on.

First single "Sound the Alarm" stands out because it's one of the densest tracks; Milk's usually pretty understated with the bass lines but here the rumble rolls then spirals upward, creating the illusion that the track's more basic than it really is as thick drums, scratches, city air hiss, orchestrated noise, and, yes, alarms quietly storm underneath. Black Milk speeds up samples often, so there's some Kanyeezy in with the Jay Dee, but his picks are usually unfuckwithable. When they are fuckwithable, the whole song suffers; an old camp movie sample serves as the basis for "Lookatusnow" and the drums one-two dutifully, flatly. Sorry, Milk, but I tired of this kind of murk three or four M.I.C. records ago. Sometimes Milk's drums step up to the challenges presented by some of his more adventurous samples, such as the quick shuffling of the kicks on "Insane" or the double dutch handclaps of "Watch Em." Or the way the drums just melt into the sample of album outro "I'm Out," which is about as close to a non-Dilla Dilla track as I think we're ever going to hear.

In fact, some of the record's most exciting musical moments exist in the appended instrumental outros on tracks like "Shut It Down" and "So Gone" and in a segue like "Luvin It." Here, unencumbered by the needs of the raps, Milk gives us a taste of what he can really do, in some cases using unusual samples and in others getting real grizzly with the drums. More importantly, Milk shows that he can go beyond just making uber-noddable yet innocuous soul cycles to run beneath typical rhyming; sure, "U" is easy to listen to, but it's easy to the point of being a pleasant nothing. "Luvin It," however, aches with a very specific atmosphere, the entire composition giving off a bittersweetness that's more than just what's contained within a loop Milk jacked off one of his vinyls. The key riff follows the tambourine-heavy drums, the electric guitar wails, synth-lights scour the night sky slowly: Vangelis boogies.

On "I'm Out" you can hear Milk saying "I should've rapped on this shit." But why didn't he? Throughout the record Milk does a fine job of adjusting his flow to the beats, even unintentionally delivering the best Hov impersonation this side of Aries Spears on "So Gone." Maybe Milk recognized the instrumentals as music deserving only of that rare rapping that'd actually enhance the emotional impact rather than dull it. Milk and most of his guests do a fine job of riding the beats, and occasionally a notable witticism will peek through, but there's nothing in the way of a full-fledged musical-lyrical connection. The closest comes courtesy of One Be Lo on bonus track "Take It There." One Be Lo gets to flaunt some of the same scheme talent and effortless flowing that made Binary Star's Masters of the Universe (2000) a Midwest underground classic; he plays with sixes and nines before smoothly transitioning into a more conventional rhyme set, and it's colorful and clever and, when backed by Milk's swarming voices and shivering drums, it's an evocative first half of a song. Musically, "Take It There" has some teeth to it, so it's just too bad that Milk can't bring the same sense of tension to his verse or his hook. Funny how bragging can take the bite out of a rap.

"One Song" has a hook that starts, "All I need is one hit." And "One Song" claims that it might be the one, but c'mon, it's a two minute song about wanting to be a hit. Black Milk got closer to all he needs when he did "All I Need" with BR Gunna. Even if that single was about little more than needing "someone good," it was a relatable sentiment that all the track's elements were effectively bent upon. And that's the kind of stuff that hits are made of. Still, for what it lacks Popular Demand has more than enough promise to fill in -- the promise of a new hip-hop producer to follow with interest, of regional music supported and expanded, and of legacies picked up and continued. If the world someday gets another Donuts (2006) out of this, I'll be smiling through a tear or two. In the meantime I hope this album can create the demand it's named after.