Black Milk Is at the Forefront of Innovation on ‘If There’s a Hell Below’ [ALBUM REVIEW]
It’s hard to stand out in Detroit. Ever since Eminem broke the mold to become the biggest star in hip-hop, the city hasn’t produced an artist of his magnitude since. That’s partly due to Marshall’s idiosyncrasies, but largely due to the specific sound that emanates from the D -- gully, metallic, heavy on percussion. The most popular artist from the region in recent years is Danny Brown, but he had to abandon his ‘Detroit State of Mind’ and lock down the hipster crowd to rise above the Motor City din. Yet while Danny managed to stay true to his rappity roots while extending himself to a new fan base, other Detroit artists have built a loyal following without drastically changing their sound to cater to a new crowd-- like Black Milk.
Black Milk’s discography is a timeline of his musical evolution. His first three albums were straight up Detroit hip-hop, complete with spine-squishing drums in the lineage of the city’s production patriarch, J Dilla. The third, 2008’s ‘Tronic,’ saw Milk experimenting synths and incorporating vocalists like Melanie Rutherford and Bilal, allowing Milk to stretch his prowess beyond rhymes, like Flying Lotus did on his 2008 LP, ‘Los Angeles.’ Black Milk’s fourth album, ‘Album Of The Year,’ found him experimenting with live instrumentation, and he’s careened off the beaten path ever since. He joined Sean Price and Guilty Simpson as Random Axe to produce their debut album in 2011, and soon after he released the ‘Black & Brown EP’ with Danny Brown, highlighting the best of both artists in a mere seven tracks.
Last year’s ‘No Poison No Paradise’ belies a better sense of Milk’s current direction. On that album, he abandoned the self-centered “raps about rapping” of his past work in favor of a narrative that followed Sonny, the semi-autobiographical protagonist. Beyond the raps, however, was a developed sense of sound. His tempos were relaxed. His drums were more beautifully off-kilter than ever before. In short, it was the best album of his career up to that point.
But his new album, ‘If There’s A Hell Below,’ is even closer in line with Milk’s EP from earlier this year, ‘Glitches In The Break,’ whose title informs Milk’s atypical approach on the project. Ominous synth strings, languid rhythms, a wider palette of samples – all a part of Black Milk’s journey to the newer sound displayed on ‘If There’s A Hell Below.’
‘If There’s A Hell Below’ is darker than Black Milk’s previous work, if you couldn’t tell by the album title. It opens with 'Everyday Was,' where he reminisces on hard veins in the arms of relatives. The chorus sings of death around the corner, and so we’re brought into the next phase of Black Milk’s growth – an existential crisis of impending death, again drawing links to FlyLo on his latest album, ‘You’re Dead!’ Racial tension rumbles under the more obvious implications of death as Black Milk remembers poverty and the pressure of dealing drugs across the album’s 12 tracks. The closing record, ‘Up & Out,’ finds Milk completing the album title’s curiosity while also flexing a newfound playfulness in his cadence – “If there’s a hell below, then we already in it / Tell your white friends, though / Come and pay us a visit / Our neighborhoods don’t look like theirs, don’t be scared.”
‘What It’s Worth,’ the album’s lead single, is one of the best songs Black Milk has ever created, point blank period. His sample use has become so fleshed out, the production now complements the raps instead of overpowering them. The strings, the vocal sample, the crisp but subdued drums – all a part of Milk’s refined (and improved) beat technique. It’s as if, on his fifth studio album, Black Milk is finally coming to understand why he makes music, and that revelation has allowed him to expand his sound without losing any of his Detroit flavor. Short outros on songs like ‘Leave the Bones Behind’ function to almost relieve the tension that builds up during the span of the track while also harkening back to rap’s Golden Age. Pete Rock, the guy who could be said to have invented the “outro beat” schtick, is even featured on ‘Quarter Water.’ Throughout the album, there is this pairing of old and new, resulting in a multilayered synthesis – Black Milk now understands his purpose, and that purpose informs the textured feel of ‘If There’s A Hell Below.’ Drums rattle, bass lines buzz, and the stamp of Detroit is never far.
What follows throughout the album is an extension of that newfound purpose. Each song breaks free from the confines of Detroit Hip-Hop while still maintaining the signature essence of the city’s music. The jazzy tempo of ‘Hell Below’ doesn’t necessarily sound like it springs from the Motor City, but the specific drums themselves sound fresh out of Black Milk’s kit. The traditional tools of the city are being used to create brand new styles, and Black Milk is at the forefront of innovation.
A couple key MCs help paint a more vivid picture. Blu contributes brushstrokes of black skin and Phil Collins on ‘Leave The Bones Behind’ while Guilty Simpson hammers out a memorable verse on the Random Axe reunion ‘Scum.’ Black Milk’s growth is even evident under the supervision of a Bun B guest verse; Bun is Houston’s most palatable feature artist, and Milk’s breezy backdrop gives the Underground King elbow room to operate.
“If There’s A Hell Below” sounds like an artist who has found his place along the sonic spectrum. The album never confines itself, consistently surprising you with varied vibrancy - consider the aesthetic juxtaposition of ‘Detroit’s New Dance Show’ with ‘Story And Her.’ Dilla’s influence is still on display at times – his bounce is embedded in ‘Grey Summer’ – but this album is a statement from Black Milk: no longer is he a little brother. ‘If There’s A Hell…’ cements Black Milk as a fully formed leader, not just amongst Detroit musicians, but in hip-hop as a whole. No Ruff Drafts on this side.