BY MATTHEW HENGEVELD Album of the Year, Black Milk’s fourth full-length solo album, is the much-anticipated follow-up to 2008’s acclaimed Tronic. With Tronic we saw a matured Black Milk, who sought to experiment with his sound. This resulted in a plastic-sounding album shot through with whirling electronics and squiggling synths. I applauded that shit— it sounded new, ambitious and weird, but it never escaped the realms of Detroit.
That ambition hasn’t left Black Milk. Album of the Year features some of the most oddball and inventive beats ever to come from Detroit. I’ll start with the most obvious improvement: Drums. Milk always keeps that “bang” with him, and every beat he makes focuses foremost on the pounding, almost sandy drums. But somehow Black Milk transformed from Pete Rock to motherfucking Max Roach. He usually lets the beat ride instrumental for a minute like a Large Pro track— but tracks like “Keep Going” are crash-heavy masterpieces, featuring nearly a minute of crackling live drums over a haunting gospel vocals. Tracks like “Deadly Medly” feature the same kind of rolling loose snares that I attribute Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” fame to, and samples a loop more at home in the ‘90s than 2010. Other tracks like “Closed Chapter” draw heavily from Go-Go influence. But the drums are just the beginning. “Black & Brown,” arguably the best track of the bunch, starts with a massive violin loop and abruptly jumps into a grinding saw-toothed bassline and smashing drums with the faint sound of screaming schoolchildren a la Radiohead’s “15 Step” (@2:13)— this quirky mix sheds light to the “psychedelic rock” Black Milk draws influence from for this album. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Milk pulled some of his samples from an old Mandrake Memorial or 13th Floor Elevators vinyl— listen to the end of “Distortion,” you’ll know what I mean. Perhaps the only drawback to this album’s production is the frequent underwhelming hooks, sung by overly-crisp vocalists like Melanie Rutherford and AB.
Black Milk first made a splash in 2004 with Dirty District Vol. 2 alongside fellow Motowners Young RJ and Fat Ray. J Dilla gave Black Milk a huge cosign for his gritty drums and inventive use of samples. He served as Detroit’s ambassador with his collaboration with Los Angeles’ Bishop Lamont for the acclaimed Caltroit album. He held Detroit together after the loss of J Dilla, and has become a key member of the entire scene alongside Denaun Porter and Guilty Simpson. Black Milk’s beatmaking has always been professional and pristine— conversely, his skills as an MC have often been… well… lacking. However, this is NOT the case with Album of the Year. A majority of the lyrics come directly from Black Milk, rather than guests, and often speak outside of Black Milk’s “safety zone” of self-aggrandizement. As we all know by now, Detroit has suffered a great loss with the death of Slum Village’s Baatin. However, kept under some secrecy are the health ailments of Black Milk’s manager, and overall Detroit Defender, Hexmurda. Hex suffered a stroke early this year, and was in very bad condition. Gladly, he survived the ordeal, but this certainly served as a huge ordeal for Black Milk and other Motown rappers. Milk documents this struggle in “365” and “Distortion.” Perhaps Black Milk’s rhyming is a bit robotic-sounding, but it is a big improvement for him. Though guest emcees are few, appearances by Elzhi, Royce Da 5’9, and Danny Brown are all impressive. Particularly Danny Brown who drops appetizing lines like, “Eatin’ on pierogies, [Grey] Goose mixed with SoBe.” Overall this is another great Detroit album. I don’t know if Milk will ever gain the type of notoriety held by Madlib or J Dilla, but he has consistently “wow-“ed his fans with album after album of dopeness.