New Black Milk boasts ‘Album of the Year’

Chris Letso

Naming your new record “Album of the Year” may seem like a bold statement, especially in the hip-hop community, where boastful proclamations can be taken very seriously. 

Black Milk, the 27-year-old producer/rapper from Detroit, is not exactly throwing down the gauntlet with this clever title choice, though. 

Instead, as he explains in the introductory track, “365,” the album is a retrospective on the past year of his life.

Black Milk, born Curtis Cross, should be recognized first and foremost as a producer. Though he raps on every track of his new album, lyricism is not exactly his strong suit. 

As a hip-hop artist, Black Milk comes from the school of Slum Village, the influential Detroit trio led by J Dilla that enjoyed its creative peak in the late ’90s; that is to say, Cross’ music consists of average lyrics, decent flow and amazing beats. 

Following J Dilla’s death in 2006, his legacy of work has been worshipped to no end, from his mainstream production collaborations to his raw, experimental solo work. 

Black Milk has taken it upon himself to carry on that legacy, creating music reminiscent of Dilla’s sample-heavy, electro-funkesque later period. 

In fact, “Welcome (Gotta Go),” the second track on “Album of the Year,” could pass for a fine example of Dilla’s work from that era.

Make no mistake though: Black Milk’s music is much more than a mere tribute, as he has successfully carved out his own distinguishable sound. 

The use of live drums on top of drum machines stretches the rhythmic palette of the beats to great effect, providing a perfect foundation for his rich, highly layered production. 

“Deadly Medley,” the album’s single, incorporates an interesting blend of sampled, murky psych guitar licks and the classic, dancehall horn blast, while Royce Da 5’9″ drops a nasty verse for a nice change of pace in the rapping department of the record. 

While Cross obviously considers this a somewhat personal album, a few more guest spots could have given the album some stronger replay value.

 Lyrically, the songs simply reflect what has happened in Cross’ life over the past year. He reflects on the death of his friend Baatin from Slum Village, along with typical girl troubles and daily issues. But just as the album starts to drag a bit, there are always a few killer production flourishes, such as the buzzing bass freak-out at the end of “Distortion,” or the brooding strings of “Black & Brown.” 

The most refreshing song on “Album of the Year” may be “Warning (Keep Bouncing).” The instrumental song kicks off with a wobbling, melodic siren sound and is driven by crisp, “boom-bap” drums, all of which is fleshed out with some fun 8-bit Nintendo gurgling.

Repeated listens of “Album of the Year” reveal a balanced variety in Black Milk’s production. 

He uses samples like guitar sounds sparingly yet effectively; unlike many producers, he does not rely on flipping some rare vinyl cuts for the bulk of his production, nor does he lean solely on the heavy synth sounds that dominated his last album, “Tronic.” 

Instead, in this album, Cross utilizes a fuller soundscape based on strong composition and deft blending. It’s a wonder that he has not yet lent production to more popular rappers, but Black Milk’s newest release is an excellent starting point for interested listeners.