Detroit-based producer Black Milk (real name Curtis Cross) is one of those guys who I wrote about a long time ago (back in September 2009, actually) that I'm sure you two hoped would have led to a much faster deconstruction of his discography. At least that's what I was hoping for: unfortunately, a ton of other shit got in the way of listening to the man's back catalog, which has grown since I first touched on his debut, Sound Of The City: Volume 1. So to make up for this omission, I apparently feel charitable enough to review two of the man's projects. You should probably go and get a snack; this is going to be a long one. You're welcome.
Sound Of The City: Volume 1 was released in 2005, and it sparked enough interest in Black Milk's production work (and, to a lesser extent, his rhyming) to warrant an album deal with Fat Beats Records. At this point, Milk was steadily carving out a niche for himself: militant soul beats with a hint of Dilla and a touch of sarcasm for good measure. So it was rational that Fat Beats felt that this combination would lead to record sales, or at the very least some critical acclaim for their independent label.
However, Fat Beats apparently needed some insurance, and that came in the form of Broken Wax: The EP, a vinyl-only release that Black Milk unleashed as a way of gauging potential interest in a sophomore album. It consisted of eight tracks, two of which were borrowed from Sound Of The City: Volume 1, and it quickly went out of print, which is why I'm not even bothering to provide a hyperlink to Amazon for it. Broken Wax: The EP quickly helped establish that there was an actual fanbase for Curtis Cross, and not just the one that had been cheering him on in his imagination since the fourth grade.
1. BROKEN WAX
A quick introductory verse from our host. He sounds decent enough, but is obviously too distracted to provide the track with anything resembling a proper ending.
Milk's beat is unnerving in the best possible way, and his two verses sound much more polished than he did on Sound Of The City: Volume 1, albeit in a scruffy, apathetic way. (I'm willing to bet that making music is his first love, with writing lyrics not even placing in the top ten.) Still, I don't really hear what made Fat Beats so excited to release a full-length project from the guy. He's alright, but it doesn't sound like there is any there there.
3. KEEP IT LIVE (FEAT. MR. PORTER)
This beat sounds like the birth mother of his later “Sound The Alarm”, although it isn't nearly as satisfying. Mr. Porter / Kon Artis, from D-12, pops up to spit a verse and co-sign our host, providing Broken Wax: The EP with some much-needed star power (relatively speaking, of course; dude is signed to Aftermath/Interscope via Shady Records, after all, so he qualifies as a major label artist). Also, Milk completely outshines his guest, which is always a good look. I'm starting the petition right now: Milk needs to hurry up and work with fellow Detroit rapper Marshall Mathers. Make it happen, Interweb!
4. U'S A FREAK BITCH
Like most rappers on Earth, Black Milk is obsessed with pussy, as he details on this incomplete-sounding censored track (which is kind of funny, as the song's own title is left unscathed). The beat probably wasn't the most conducive for a sex rap to have much of an impact, and Milk speaks on the subject in the exact same cadence and fashion as he talks about everything else, so I wasn't really feeling this.
5. TELL 'EM (FEAT. NAMETAG)
Although the hook sounded like ass, this wasn't all that bad. Milk takes his lyrical game to Kanye West-levels of arrogance with his proclamation that he's already bored with rap because it's “so easy”, possibly tempting the fates and earning hatred from other rappers, but he's a grown-ass man: he can handle himself. I was far more enamored with Nametag's contribution: something tells me that Black Milk could be huge one day if he settled back into his producer role and only took to the mic sparingly. But where's the fun in that? This was pretty interesting.
6. DANGER (FEAT. T3 & PHAT KAT)
The beat on “Danger” is simple, but very effective, acting as a playground for all of the participants to run rampant through. T3's second verse, in which he breaks down every letter in the word “dangerous” (maybe he didn't get the memo that the song's title was altered) was entertaining as fuck, but that's not to discount Milk and Phat Kat's work. Shit, this was just a good song. It helps that I also enjoyed it when it appeared on Sound Of The City: Volume 1, though.
7. S.O.T.C. (FEAT. FAT RAY & ELZHI)
Also taken from Sound Of The City: Volume 1, although it was simply called “Sound Of The City” back then.
As to why an EP needs an outro exactly, I'm not sure.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Broken Wax: The EP serves as a successful reintroduction to Black Milk, the Detroit producer who always dreamed of being in front of the camera. It's a quick, non-demanding listen, and the guest rappers outshine our host on all but one occasion (merely because it's their job to do so), but Milk proves himself to be an artist worth watching out for. Not every track works, which is a problem on an EP release, but you'll hear enough to make you seek out the follow-up, so in that respect, this experiment worked.
BUY OR BURN? Burn this one, mainly because it's much harder to find than any of his other projects. (And not because it was only released on vinyl.) You don't need to listen to this EP in order to understand what's going on in the Black Milk story: while it does add to his background a little bit, it's mostly just an enjoyable trifle. Well, half of it is, anyway.
BEST TRACKS: “Danger”; “Keep It Live”; “Tell 'Em”
Thanks to the (relative) success of Broken Wax: The EP, Fat Beats Records quickly commissioned Black Milk's sophomore album, Popular Demand, for a 2007 release. Like his previous efforts, Popular Demand featured multiple guest appearances from some of his Detroit brethren, most of whom were artists who were starving for any sort of attention, thanks to a certain white rapper from Detroit becoming a fucking global superstar and all.
Unlike Broken Wax: The EP, Popular Demand consisted of all-new material, although Milk hadn't forgotten about his fans: a deluxe edition of Popular Demand, one which may no longer be in print, included instrumentals of some of the songs from Broken Wax: The EP on a bonus disc, along with a couple of other goodies for the diehards.
Popular Demand would go on to sell less that fifteen thousand copies. Some of you two may find this appalling, and rightfully so, but this is actually right on par with a lot of acts from the Motor City: I highly doubt The Left's Gas Mask has moved even half as many units, no matter how much I try to pimp out that awesome album. But sales figures have never really mattered in our chosen genre, no matter how much some people use them to measure "relevancy"; Popular Demand did exactly what Black Milk had set out to do. With his second album, he expanded on his brand of hip hop, cleaning up his vocals (while he still isn't all that great as a rapper, there is a marked improvement with his performances on Popular Demand when compared to Sound Of The City: Volume 1) and boosting the soulful feel of his instrumentals (which must be the Motown influence: aside from Marshall Mathers, most every Detroit-based producer has worked the shit out of the soul records in their crates), all while expanding his audience (slightly) and making himself more marketable to artists from outside his home state. After Popular Demand, Black Milk was invited to work with artists as varied as Bishop Lamont (who he recorded an entire album with), Pharoahe Monch, GZA/Genius. and Kidz In The Hall.
Okay, maybe those artists aren't necessarily as varied as Black Milk would have liked. But the man is young: there's still plenty of time for him to fulfill my wish list.
1. POPULAR DEMAND
The introductory skit leads listeners to believe that Popular Demand will start off with yet another example of a crappy rap album intro, but Milk starts rapping once the beat kicks in. He may be right in that producer-slash-rappers are more highly criticized than regular rappers (I beg to differ), but he's stepped up his writing game tremendously since Sound Of The City: Volume 1 (and, to a lesser extent, since Broken Wax: The EP), so he doesn't have much to worry about. Not a bad way to kick things off.
2. SOUND THE ALARM (FEAT. GUILTY SIMPSON)
Apologies to the next track, but this song is completely bugnuts insane. Once the drums kick in about two seconds into the proceedings, you're hooked, even before you hear a single fucking word, and even if you were doing something else around the house, not even in the same room as your speakers. “Sound The Alarm” is one of Black Milk's very best beats, and it's obvious that he's been practicing, as he sounds pretty fucking good over what is ostensibly a club banger. (Guest star Guilty Simpson also does a very fine job.) This shit deserves a remix, one of those mixtape-only affairs that features eighty-three other artists sharing the beat. This was fucking awesome. (Side note: there is an actual remix to this song featuring Royce da 5'9” on some mixtape, but the beat is completely different. Why, God, why??!?!?!)
The first description that comes to mind when you hear this beat is “militant”. Milk thinks so, too, with his references to soldiers and the Vietnam War and all. “Sound The Alarm” and “Insane” make for one of the best one-two combinations in hip hop history, as Black Milk complements his own beat with the braggadocio of a more seasoned vet: he's obviously been studying those other artists he works with frequently. I wish this were twelve minutes long, that's how good it sounds. The skit at the end is a bit unnecessary, though.
4. LOOK AT US NOW (FEAT. PHAT KAT)
Unfortunately, Black Milk misses out on the hat trick, as “Look At Us Now” is nowhere near the level of the previous two tracks. It still sounds pretty good, though: Phat Kat works well within Milk's instrumental maze, and Milk himself is decent as well. The beat doesn't grab you as forcefully as the other tracks thus far, but it does manage to work its way into your mind, so in that regard, it's successful enough. The hook sucks balls, though. There's just no way around that bit of criticism.
5. U (FEAT. TY & KORY)
Black Milk's love song for the ladies falls flat for me. The beat is a bit redundant for my personal tastes: I'm kind of sick of the high-speed soul samples weaving their way in between drum hits. But the reason I don't like the song is because I don't believe Milk's sincerity for a second: after hearing four tracks featuring some elegant shit-talking, he can't simply flip the switch and go after the female audience, as it doesn't ring truthful. Oh well, they can't all be winners.
6. SHUT IT DOWN (FEAT. AHK)
This wasn't bad, but I fear the sped-up soul samples have already become a crutch for our host. At least the rest of the beat clicks, though: the drums, string samples, and piano keys combine to lay a solid foundation for Milk's lyrics, which have found their way back home after getting lost on “U”. So far, I'm liking Milk's approach to his songs: not a single track on Popular Demand thus far contains more than two verses, as he says what he needs to say and quickly heads for the exit. So at least you can't say that any of these tracks sound bloated. The brief instrumental interlude at the end was okay, too.
7. SO GONE
I wasn't really feeling this one. Technically, it sounds okay, but it already sounded too familiar after hearing the first six tracks on here. Missteps are okay as long as the artist does something to fix them, though, so I'm not sweating it (yet).
8. SAY SOMETHING (FEAT. NAMETAG & SLIM S.D.H.)
The brief interlude at the end of “So Gone” segues into “Say Something” in an awful way: it's truly a shock to the system. This track breaks from the two-verse blueprint I was just talking about, but then again, it features more than one guest, so that's a good enough reason, I suppose. I didn't want to reach out and hug this song, though, and that's a problem.
9. PLAY THE KEYS
Although he keeps teasing the audience, Milk keeps “Play The Keys” strictly instrumental. It sounded alright, but it could use some variety to prevent outright boredom.
10. WATCH 'EM (FEAY. FAT RAY & QUE D)
Wait, was a song just playing right now? The repetitive beat and bland lyrics faded into the background so easily that I didn't even remember that I was supposed to be writing a review. I suppose this track was that dull.
11. THREE + SUM (FEAT. LIL' SKEETER)
Milk sounds far more natural rhyming about fucking than he does talking about love: it plays into his hipster swagger. It's kind of funny when, toward the end of the second verse, Milk admits that he knows his story sounds far-fetched. It's too bad that there wasn't much on here to recommend.
12. ACTION (FEAT. SLUM VILLAGE & BATAAN)
Milk hooks up with the then-current incarnation of Slum Village (T3 and Elzhi), along with the late Bataan (a former Slum dweller himself) for a surprisingly cohesive banger. The chorus is awful, and the second verse tried my patience (it slows the track down considerably), but Milk's instrumental is full of wonder and awe, and the hard drums were also nice. This won't necessarily send any new fans Slum Village's way, but it was an entertaining diversion nonetheless.
13. LUVIN' IT
Pleasant enough, but I'm disappointed that this was only a brief instrumental interlude and not an actual song.
14. ONE SONG
The selective censorship (on my copy of Popular Demand, anyway) would have meant more to me if I gave a fuck about this track. Moving on...
15. I'M OUT
Some outro music from our host, who even admits at one point that he “should have rapped over” the admittedly interesting beat. Strange that this was inserted before the actual final song.
16. TAKE IT THERE (FEAT. ONE BE LO)
This was actually pretty good. Milk's instrumental has more depth than most of the other tracks on Popular Demand, and the rhymes (from guest One Be Lo of Binary Star) are impressive. This helps the album swing toward the positive side of the fence. And yes, I realize that last sentence doesn't really make any sense, but you get my point. And cue the readers requesting a Binary Star review...now.
As I mentioned above, a deluxe edition of Popular Demand came packaged with a second disc consisting, curiously, of Broken Wax: The EP, in a fashion: most of it is made up of instrumentals from that previous vinyl-only project, with two of the actual songs thrown in for no discernible reason, and one other track that isn't available on any other album.
1. BROKEN WAX (INSTRUMENTAL)
2. PRESSURE (INSTRUMENTAL)
3. KEEP IT LIVE (FEAT. MR. PORTER)
4. U'S A FREAK BITCH (INSTRUMENTAL)
5. HOME OF THE GREATS
The beat on here is fucking good. Milk sounds more animated on here than on the actual album. The hook sucks, but when you write about hip hop as extensively as I do, that shit's just a foregone conclusion.
6. TELL 'EM (FEAT. NAMETAG)
7. DANGER (INSTRUMENTAL)
8. SOUND OF THE CITY (INSTRUMENTAL)
9. OUTRO (INSTRUMENTAL)
FINAL THOUGHTS: Popular Demand is a mixed bag. On one hand, Black Milk handles the production end fairly well, providing a consistent sound (almost too consistent at times) for listeners to bite into, and does so without resorting to simple laziness about eighty percent of the time. Lyrically, though, he has a long road to travel: he seems stuck in “arrogant” mode no matter what he's talking about, and that shit doesn't really work for me. There are some fucking amazing tracks on Popular Demand that, um, demand to be heard, but some of the weaker songs detract from the overall listening experience. Not so much that you won't notice Black Milk's obvious talent, though.
BUY OR BURN? I recommend a cautionary purchase: the tracks listed below are awesome, but a lot of this comes across as a “take it or leave it” proposition. However, the great songs alone are worth the cost of admission. Only shoot for the two-disc version if you're a Black Milk completist, though: it isn't essential for your well-being.
BEST TRACKS: “Sound The Alarm”; “Insane”; “Action”; “Take It There”; “Shut It Down”; “Keep It Live” (bonus disc); “Home Of The Greats” (bonus disc)