Black Milk Black MilkAlbum Of The Year
Since the death of J Dilla, we’ve been going on about post-Dillism as if there were no other label for classifying and contextualising the whole string of by-products and mediocrities aspiring to take the world of instrumental hip hop by storm. A handful of broken, distorted beats, samples of funk and soul, asymmetrical tempos and futuristic projection was enough reason to dig out the label and slap it on. All of these comparisons, shortcuts, and journalistic traps insisting on taking his name in vain have ended up devaluing the great obsession of many hip hop fans since the disappearance of Jay Dee: to find someone to take over for him with certain guarantees, fully justified and capable of handling this responsibility. But we’re not looking for a photocopy or a clone to hide that he is no longer with us, but rather somebody with a similar personality, somebody comparable, whose talent and creative flow we could suck on to get rid of the orphaned feeling that his death has left us with. And believe me: none of the many artists who have come out in recent months, no new kid on the block with an alibi or wonky overprotection, nor any of the luminaries of the ‘beatz’ scene deserves that honour. Not yet.
My choice, even before Dilla himself was gone, was always Black Milk, also from Detroit and an outstanding student to his teacher. He deserved candidacy already in the times of “Popular Demand”, but particularly after the impact of “Tronic”, an album that showed a priceless trait of its author above all else: the obsessive desire for growth, evolution, overcoming difficulties, and improvement. The profile was as clear as day, and only the final proof of confirmation was missing, the definitive explosion, to declare the changing of the guard and swear him into office. “Album of the Year”, a title that is neither self-congratulatory nor presumptuous (it alludes to an idea of summary or compendium of everything that has happened in a year, in no case does he proclaim himself to be the winner or the king of any title or prize), arrives as the ideal complement to its predecessors, accurate and precise; it is especially a new declaration of the intention to open up and expand, take a leap in quality and maturity in all of the creative aspects that affect Black Milk’s discourse. Today, he is at the pinnacle of experimental boom bap.
Before dealing with the album’s exciting, overwhelming sound, it is indispensable to refer to Black Milk’s notorious improvement as an MC. In this sense, one can say that the student is on his way to surpassing the master, because the range of rhymes, images, texts, and writings that he spits out in this comeback deserves a comparison that has perhaps skimped on in the analyses of his previous albums (and rightly so, by the way). There is a lot of Royce Da 5’9’’ in his way of polishing, scratching, and adjusting the flow, but also in the personality of the lyrics, which perfectly capture this universe of experiences, “memory lane,” competitive spirit, street punch, and hip hop hypertext that has always made Royce one of the most consistent, admirable MCs on the circuit, as has been claimed thoroughly on this website, for example. His growth is so notable that for the first time in his career, we haven’t missed an extra collaboration—he alone carries the weight of the show with a flow that is exultant, motivated, and much surer of himself, which fits right in with the particular way the beats move. It’s a direct passport into the VIP room of producers-rappers presided over by Diamond D, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Kanye West or Large Professor, among many others.
If we enter into strictly musical territory, we still find ourselves handing out praise and respect. A great representative of an expressive and stylistic choice patented by The Roots, bringing together two ways of doing things, two traditions, and, in a sense, two ways of understanding hip hop, combining, blending, and integrating samples, loops and instrumentation into a unified sound, “Album of the Year” could be presented as the street, boom bap, radical version of “How I Got Over”. It’s not necessarily a response or a comeback, but it is the biggest problem that has come up for the Philadelphia band this year. Because The Roots’ album tends towards austerity, the search for a certain essentialism and reflective melancholy; here, on the other hand, so many things are happening at the same time, almost from accumulation and overlaying, that the group’s contemplation and contention on this front turns into aggression, squandering, pageantry, vigour, to-the-limit intensity. If The Roots leans towards pastoral folk and arty pop, Black Milk flirts—and how—with gospel, psychedelics, afro-funk, Latin jazz, or even 70’s rock, propagating a stylistic cocktail that is dizzying and disturbing. In both cases, the sources of inspiration and external references don’t make the proposal into a rank, backwards crossover—instead the background of hard, solid, pure hip hop is never lost for a second.
The way that the Detroit MC integrates a real band of musicians into his whirlwind of vintage samples and apocalyptic beats (it is hereby confirmed once and for all that this man puts out the best drums in current hip hop) is amazing for its fluidity, naturalness, and brilliance, but also for the high level of demands placed on himself that one glimpses in the mechanisms. It makes so much sense, is so reasonable and logical, in spite of the massive, almost baroque presence of sounds, effects, resources, tests, and instruments, that you can sense and foresee the author’s artistic growth right off the bat. If “Tronic” ended up becoming the 2.0 version of “Popular Demand”, with a more futuristic, intricate, complex version of that made-in-Detroit soulful hip hop, “Album of the Year” acts as a full, satisfactory updating of it, but with new features and research that are different from those proposed before. All much more elaborate, conscious, and risky.
This is how you forge a full, referential identity in the world of hip hop: making sure that every new album sounds fresh and new in comparison with the previous one, without ever losing the connection and the memory of the debut. The perfect combination of tradition, roots, essence, and creativity, research, searching. So far, the 2010 crop has offered more global, magical albums, like that of Big Boi or The Roots, as well as more radical, purist ones, like that of Roc Marciano, but if someone were to ask me right now about the hip hop balance of the year so far, and with a rivalry that is as close and hard-fought as this one, where very subjective, personal values come into play, I wouldn’t hesitate: “Album of the Year” is on its way to becoming just that. David Broc