Black Milk - "Closed Chapter (feat. Mr. Porter)" (Album of the Year)
“The music on this album represents a moment in time since the last album I put it out… That was the main reason I named it Album of the Year.” This is how Curtis Cross, a.k.a. Black Milk, recently put the title of his third solo full-length in context. This isn’t [just] a stab at hip-hop album of the year, this is his album of the year — which is significant, because the guy has been knee-deep in beatmaking since 2008’s acclaimed Tronic. Working with Guilty Simpson and Sean Price, Milk produced the Random Axe full-length (due out late this year), then gave Melanie Rutherford a pile of beats for Searching for Sanity (also due soon). It almost seems like a better idea to wait for those albums to appear in full so we can put Album of the Year in better context as either a summation of his post-Tronic projects or as a snapshot of where he, exclusively, resided.
Here is what I can tell you about this record without that context. It’s a baby crawl forward for Black Milk lyrically. The 27-year-old has, like mentor J Dilla, never been a mind-melting lyricist. His flow is steady, his bars rarely (if ever) switch mid-verse, and the stuff he’s saying is about what you’d expect if you heard either Tronic or Popular Demand before that: He’s had a busy year and he wants you to know about it; he’s just trying to preserve Dilla’s legacy; big ups to anyone with a 313 in their area code; here are a few of my pals to rap over some of my beats (AB, Royce da 5’9”, Elzhi, Melanie Rutherford, Monica Blaire, Danny Brown, Denaun Porter). There are some clever couplets scattered among this album, but it’s hardly Dimetapp-induced Weezy otherworldliness or dadaist K-the-I??? abstractions we’re talking about here.
The thing is, then, what the thing has always been: Who cares about the rhymes all that much when have you heard these beats? It is rare to hear somebody taking somebody else’s (in this case, Dilla’s futuristic funk) template and manipulating it in such a way that it feels fresher, harder, longer, and on par with the original. Heresy maybe, but I don’t pretend Black Milk isn’t. These beats slay, and that includes the truncated snippets and reprises that tend to bookend songs here. The toned-down DJ Khalid airhorns and broken piano funk sample on first single “Deadly Medley” is one. Submerged wah-wah guitar licks color “Distortion” in another. Outer space synths on “Warning (Keep Bouncing)” are another. The tension with the sampled strings on “Black and Brown” complements Milk’s anxious delivery and Danny Brown’s patiently paced posturing is yet another example.
They’re amazing sounds to be sure, but none of those descriptions speaks to Milk’s true forte: the drums. It’s the first word uttered on “Keep Going,” and that could not have been a better song to pull such a cheeky move — it’s got the most aggressive percussion on the album. Crashing cymbals, hard hitting snare drums and — because they are recorded live — an imperfect flexibility colored by natural human reaction times. These are the key elements that make Milk’s beats so interesting and Album of the Year the best collection thereof since, what, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… II? Or maybe his own Tronic?
The end result is that, as far as we know (for now), Album of the Year is Black Milk continuing along at his very best. “My shit is Martin Luther / Your shit is Martin Lawrence,” he sings on “Deadly Medley,” and after a dozen songs here (Pick a favorite, it really doesn’t matter), you’re inclined to believe him. Even if Random Axe and Searching for Sanity aren’t on this level, at least he picked the right name for the right record. In at least one way, possibly two, we can proclaim this an Album of the Year. We can see come December whether it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can do a lot of things…but we worry too much. Sleep easy at night knowing one of hip-hop’s best producers in the last five years continues to swagger casually among us.