Black Milk, the 31-year-old Detroit rapper-producer, seems like a rap nerd’s kind of guy. Milk has all of the prerequisites to appeal to the person, or myself, who really enjoyed the Stones Throw Records documentary. He worked with J Dilla, helped create underground super-group Random Axe with Sean Price and Guilty Simpson and collaborated with Danny Brown before everyone became hip to the high-pitched rapper.
Milk’s also the kind of artist who keeps his fans on their toes. The guy’s evolved since he first popped onto the scene almost ten years ago. He’s always had the chops; it’s just been a matter as to how well he executes his vision on wax. His latest solo LP, If There’s A Hell Below, takes the scratchy, industrial-tinged boom-bap of his EP from earlier this year, Glitches In The Break, and blows it up…to remarkable results. Here are four thoughts on how he’s shown artistic growth rather than stagnation.
1. If You Really Like Beats…
You’ll enjoy If There’s A Hell Below. It’s no secret that Milk’s always been a more prolific producer than rapper: an unofficial successor to Dilla’s sampled, scratchy and soulful sound. Every song on If There’s A Hell Below has at least a couple of parts. So it’s mind-bending to hear the twists in the beats as each member of Random Axe spits on “Scum” or the industrial drums fire to life on “Detroit’s New Dance Show.” Each track comes layered with several elements, as instrumental track Hell Below proves: the cut throws everything from jazz fusion and boom-bap to soul chants into a blender and lets it all rock.
2. The Rapping’s Not Bad, Either
Milk’s a capable lyricist. That’s not meant as a back-handed compliment because he’s not expected to match someone like Kendrick or Drake bar for bar. As someone who works both sides of the booth, the standard for which fans should judge Milk is how he pairs his rhymes with his production. On If There’s A Hell Below, Milk paints a picture of Detroit that ranges from grisly to kookie: depending upon the beat he’s crafted.
He sounds proudly resigned when he raps “But it sound like we’re raised around criminals just to hear shots outside of the door/Give a fuck less about shots and subliminals,” overtop the uneasy “What It’s Worth.” And Milk’s almost malicious in how cool he is on “Gold Piece,” perhaps the LP’s stand-out track which features a Bun B appearance that sounds almost “Murder”-like.
3. Dense Like Cheesecake
If There’s A Hell Below isn’t party music. It’s meant to be enjoyed with headphones buried in the ears. It requires a commitment to sit and listen to everything Milk’s cooked up, with headier tracks like “Hell Below” and “Story and Her” giving listeners the idea that they’re further along in the album than they really are. It’s a nitpicked grievance to have, but the absolute swirl of the production sometimes washes out Milk and his guests’ bars, forcing fans to listen repeatedly whether they want to or not.
4. Lacks The Specific Details
Look, If There’s A Hell Below is a good album. It throws listeners into a funky whirlwind that details all the ills of growing up in modern-day Detroit: dodging the stick-up kids and resigning oneself to a limited set of opportunities outside a corner or a booth and detailing all the nihilism that comes with the city.
But fans should pine for more lyrical pictures from Milk, which he lacks here. Most of the songs cover the generalities of hard-living Detroit, eschewing particular anecdotes for mood. Milk gives small, detail-oriented glimpses like when he raps “since a young age, maybe since the fifth grade, n*ggas always been about they hustle/seen my n*gga Randy on the bus then, selling penny candies during lunch and,” on “Quarter Water”; however, lines like that are few and far between.
If There’s A Hell Below isn’t perfect, but then again that just leaves another level in which to evolve.