Black Milk - Album of the Year
Record Label: Fat Beats Records
Release Date: September 14th, 2010
It's hard to talk about Curtis Cross, otherwise known as Black Milk, without drawing comparisons to hip-hop legend J Dilla. Both originate from Detroit. Both have backgrounds in producing but are also talented MCs. They also have a ton of history together. After fate placed one of Milk's early tapes in Dilla's lap, the young producer was given a chance to produce a track on Slum Village's mixtape Dirty District and later a few more on their third album Trinity. Milk's group B.R. Gunna then went on to produce the majority of Slum Village's album Detroit Deli, further cementing their place in the Detroit underground scene. A few years later, with no label and his group on hiatus, Milk started his solo career. J Dilla's death in early 2006 left a void in the Detroit hip-hop scene that wouldn't easily be filled, but Milk's creative production seemed to be the second coming of a man the community deeply missed.
It's been nearly two years since Milk's last release Tronic, but there's no doubt he's been putting in work. Naming your record Album of the Year seems a bit arrogant at face value, especially with the amount of talented artists in the scene today. It's also incredibly risky. With a name like that, it would tend to be under much more scrutiny than any other release, and the hype the name alone creates would be hard to live up to. But you can't take an album like Album of the Year just at face value alone. Instead of being a statement on his music's worth, Milk was creating a story of his life in 2009 and all the things that came with it. Happiness, pain, frustration...all of these are found inside Album of the Year. Milk created something intensely personal, and missing out on that because of something like the album title would be a huge mistake.
The opening track (“365”) begins with a short introduction detailing Milk's ambitions with this album, but after that he's all business. Driving drum rolls and horns create a lively beat behind Milk's rather unique flow. Taking a lesson from Muhammad Ali, he's strong and yet soft. His lyrics are unflinching as he speaks on losing friends and family to tragic circumstances, but they don't come off as harsh in any way. He has a way of crafting light and effortless vocals with relentless rhythm to create a style all his own. These are traits that Milk exhibits perfectly throughout the rest of the album.
While Tronic was a bit of an experiment for Milk, Album of the Year tends to skew back towards the basics of hip-hop. But this isn't a bad thing in the slightest. Milk has said his goal for this album was to be a bit more melodic than his older ventures, and I'd say he hit the mark perfectly in that venture. Tracks like “Keep Going” and “Over Again” are mostly held up by basic drum beats and horns, but offer a better arena for Milk to showcase his original production and sampling. These conventional melodies also fit much better with his vocal style instead of crowding it. With much more space to flex his lyrical muscles, the change in sound is definitely for the better.
But even the Album of the Year has to have that one track that stands out, right? Funny enough, Milk provided three phenomenal tracks that could all serve as the pillars of the album. “Deadly Medley” features two huge performers in Royce da 5' 9” and Elzhi, but Milk still shines through. Each rappers' presentation mixes and flows well into each other, while the production features perfect melodies through piano keys and old-school guitar. The improvements in Milk's lyricism are definitely made known in “Distortion” when he details the feelings he was overcome with after the death of his aunt, the loss of close friend and Slum Village member Baatin, and the nearly fatal stroke of his manager Hex Murda. Delayed guitars and bells create a very dissonant sound that is rarely heard in hip-hop today. Milk's heavy heart is conveyed just as well through the production as the lyrics, and it's easy to tell this is one of the more important tracks on the album. The last defining track on the album is most definitely “Black and Brown.” Combining elaborate strings and pounding drum beats, Milk and guest Danny Brown are unyielding in their lyrical delivery, and it's probably the only track on the album where Milk's vocals come off as hard as their content.
After the weirdly disjointed and somehow still enjoyable “Gospel Pyschadelic Rock,” the album finds it's closing song in the aptly named “Closed Chapter.” This song is an amazing outro, featuring sparse lyrics and backing vocals. The music and beats are the definite draw in this track, and Milk does not disappoint on that front. The backbone of the song is a repeated drum roll that flows along just as well as the lyrics, broken up occasionally by a piercing and simplistic guitar solo. It's surprisingly optimistic and upbeat compared to the rest of the album, and Milk pays respects to those that came before him and, in J Dilla's case, paved the way.
Album of the Year is never what you think it's going to be. It lulls you into a false sense of familiarity quite a few times, only to shake whatever foundations you thought it had set up and hit you with something fresh and inspiring. While Tronic was an exercise in experimenting with odd genre pairings, Album of the Year carries a very classic sound. Fans of his earlier production work will definitely be pleased, as well as surprised at the leaps and bounds his lyrics have made in only a couple of short years. While these improvements may have come from traumatic experiences Milk experienced in the past year, they lend a sincere air to his lyrics and offer a productive outlet to assuage his grief. In Album of the Year I see a man finally finding his own spot to occupy in both mainstream and underground hip-hop scenes, spots that are slowly expanding with every release.