I haven't written about Curtis "Black Milk" Cross since 2012, and I haven't written about a proper solo project from him, on which he is the featured producer and emcee, since 2011. I shouldn't really be surprised, given just how many different stories are going on within our chosen genre at any given time, but it's still weird just how quickly time gets away from you. So today I present my attempt to drop myself back into his narrative.
Detroit native Black Milk has enjoyed blogger success ever since he dropped his solo debut, Sound Of The City: Volume 1 in 2005. On that independent release, he came running out of the gate not fully formed, but with a backpack full of potential, as he put his time being mentored by the late producer Dilla to good use, spitting braggadocio over soul samples and hard-hitting drums he would soon become known for. Although he snagged a record deal with slightly-larger indie label Fat Beats, Black Milk has never enjoyed mainstream success, remaining content with hanging out in the fringes like a perpetual wallflower, albeit one who never stops working: Milk has produced collaborative albums with a slew of artists ranging from Sean Price and Guilty Simpson (referring to their trio as Random Axe) to Danny Brown and Bishop Lamont (who should probably never make up a group with Black Milk). Most of his chosen collaborators hail from his hometown, which only adds to what will ultimately become the man's legacy in the rap game.
Tronic, named after our host's attempt to create beats using only electronic influences, is Black Milk's third solo album, released on Fat Beats six years ago today. The songs are connected loosely through a framework inspired by A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders, although not distractingly so. Tronic was met with Interweb-wide acclaim even before Milk revealed the guest list, since bloggers are quick to jump on trends like that: the fact that Milk was able to convince names such as Royce da 5'9" and DJ Premier (not working together, sadly, but that would have been cool) to contribute to his electronic exercise proves that he actually has some clout he could wield around when necessary. The pessimist in me is convinced that Fat Beats asked him to snag an A-list guest just so they had a big name to put on the sticker affixed to the outside packaging of Tronic, and I'm probably right, but Black Milk wouldn't be the first artist to concede to those terms.
Tronic did about as well as anything else Black Milk has released: unfortunately, critical acclaim doesn't translate to album sales. Which suited our host just fine: with extraordinary profits comes an expectation to hit those goals every time, and Cross was happy with exploring his every musical whim on his own terms.
However, and I'm probably giving something away by writing this, that doesn't necessarily mean that all of Tronic actually works.
1. LONG STORY SHORT
Quiet, melodic piano keys lead into and out of one fucking banger of a beat, one our host uses to run down his life story thus far. He's obviously picked up some writing tips along the way: although he was never a slouch behind the mic, the Black Milk on "Long Story Short" is more clever and concise than ever before. Even though the track essentially serves as a rap album intro in the "Previously on Black Milk" vein, I cannot stress enough how good this shit is. You just need to listen to it for yourself. It's easy to find online: you can use Spotify or YouTube, for example. Go ahead. I can wait. I'm just words on a screen, after all.
Well, that was a quick turnaround. There isn't anything organic about the beat for "Bounce": it only exists thanks to advancements in modern music technology. That's not to say that the underlying instrumental is bad: it's just that "Bounce" sounds so cold and distant that it may as well be estranged from your mother. Black Milk's technically proficient, no-bullshit, no-frills lyrical manner is okay enough, but merely knowing how to rap isn't enough: you have to being something else to the table to catch the ears of the audience, and Milk just doesn't really have that spark, let's be honest. As such, even with what seems to be all of the right ingredients, this shit just doesn't gel. Our host's hook, which attempts to command listeners to perform the titular action, is also so apathetic that it's almost like pretentious performance art at this point. Moving on...
3. GIVE THE DRUMMER SUM
A brief, boring-as-shit instrumental interlude ends "Bounce" and leads into this track, the first single, which at least features drum work, although our host probably didn't perform it himself in the studio. Said drums sounded pretty good, but the first voice you hear perform over them is a Black Milk on helium, which a lot of folks may compare to fellow producer-slash-rapper Madlib-as-Quasimoto but really comes across more like Warren G.'s G-Child persona, which kind of fucks everything up for me. "Give The Drummer Sum" meanders in the worst way, ignoring key factors such as "song structure" and "entertainment value" to unleash what our host believes to be his id, which is apparently just as dull as his boasts. Groan.
4. WITHOUT U (FEAT. COLIN MUNROE)
The lone song on Tronic not produced by our host shares an audio track with an instrumental interlude that runs well over a minute long, almost as though Black Milk has trouble handing over so much control to a third party and felt he still needed to have a say. Guest star Colin Munroe handles the beat, along with the hook, to a song that is very generic-sounding in nature, and our host attempts to find a new way to describe how relieved he happens to be after a breakup, but he never finds his footing, and "Without U" is ultimatelly forgettable. Wait, what was I taking about again?
5. HOLD IT DOWN
Milk devotes the entire first verse to the directions he finds himself being pulled in throughout his career, and he lays out the idea that he had to choose between keeping the underground happy versus trying to cater to the mainstream in such a halfhearted way that all I could do was laugh out loud, because let's be honest, there's no goddamn way Black Milk is suddenly going to hit it big at this point. Especially not with this kind of shit, with a Gary Numan-sampling burp-and-fart instrumental that fails to hold down anything, up to and including both my interest and my lunch. Bleh.
6. LOSING OUT (FEAT. ROYCE DA 5'9")
Lyrically, "Losing Out" is pretty decent: guest star Ryan Montgomery is, well, longtime readers of the blog will know how I feel about Royce (short version: I like the dude), and our host seems to elevate his own delivery to not be entirely overshadowed by his guest, so even though his lack of charisma behind the mic is especially noticeable on a song he shares with his hometown hero, he still could have sounded worse. However, the instrumental, while not horrible, flat-out doesn't bang: it whimpers along on the strength of its sample of "Let's Talk About Me" from The Alan Parsons Project, which only proves that not every chopped-and-sped-up vocal sound bite in the world makes for a good hip hop beat.
7. HELL YEAH (FEAT. FAT RAY)
Milk does a complete 180 and turns in a winner for "Hell Yeah", lending two fast-paced verses to a sinister marching band-esque loop guaranteed to wake you out of the slumber you've probably been lingering in ever since "Long Story Short" ended. Guest Fat Ray only stops by to deliver the hook, which isn't great, but our host works overtime to ensure the audience is entertained by his boasts 'n bullshit, and for the first time in quite a while, the payoff just fucking works. The beat runs for nearly an additional minute after Milk stops rapping, which isn't a complaint since it's pretty good, but it seems to have been tailor-made for another artist to drop by (maybe Fat Ray had other commitments at the time or something). The track ends with an interlude that brings back the Midnight Marauders-inspired foundation Tronic is built upon.
Milk at least sticks with upbeat instrumentals that knock for "Overdose", an exercise in shit-talking that is ultimately a failure, but an interesting-enough failure. Our host's cocky swagger behind the microphone comes across as a disguise that he was trying on at the time: ill-fitting and far more expensive than his budget allows. Not only is it not him, there isn't much of a way it could be him, unless Black Milk somehow undergoes a charisma transplant. Had he shared "Overdose" with more artists, this shit would have been nice, but as a solo song, it's merely okay, but your eyes are guaranteed to wander.
9. REPPIN' FOR U (FEAT. AB)
Comes equipped with a chorus that is so goddamn frustrating that you'll want to choke it to death. You won't actually do it, because you're not a murderer and you enjoy your freedom, so you'll probably just
10. THE MATRIX (FEAT. PHAROAHE MONCH, SEAN PRICE, & DJ PREMIER)
The song everyone that bought Tronic skipped to first, true fact. Primo doesn't lend production (not that Milk's work is insufficient, but come on, the guy is right fucking there) and obviously doesn't rap, but he does contribute one of his patented DJ Premier Hooks Made Up Solely Of Chopped-Up Vocal Samples From Various Sources, so there's that. So lets eliminate those expectations immediately. However, "The Matrix" was still enjoyable, thanks to the presence of Pharoahe Monch and Milk's Random Axe partner Sean Price, even though Monch's verse traffics in annoying-as-shit gimmicks and somewhat shitty lyrics. Milk's beat is a bit more electronic and cold than you may have hoped (sampling Tangerine Dream will do that), but it still works, and our host's own verse certainly suits it. Also, you don't get to heart Jay-Z's voice on Black Milk production all that often, even if it's because of a sample, so.
The instrumental, built around a soul sample from The Symphonic Four's "Who Do You Think You're Fooling", is an anomaly on Tronic, as Black Milk admits during the first verse that he was honestly trying (get it?) to avoid soul samples for this project, but old habits die hard. The beat isn't great, but it also isn't bad: it's like an early Kanye West beat as heavily informed by Dilla. In fact, in a way, Black Milk just beat out 'Ye by about five years, since Yeezus also features primarily cold electronic noises and the one soul-based throwback-y joint. But our host doesn't have aspirations quite that high. His verses are decent, though, especially when he starts complaining about how his favorite artists aren't coming with it these days, a sentiment he gladly admits to borrowing from OutKast's "Rosa Parks". Okay, I suppose, but not required listening.
12. TRONIC SUMMER
A pleasant-enough instrumental track, although Milk's ad-libs could lead someone (like myself) to believe that this was, at one point, an actual song with lyrics that our host unexpectedly decided to delete one fine summer morning.
13. BOND 4 LIFE (FEAT. MELANIE RUTHERFORD)
That statement isn't true: I'm not entirely convinced Black Milk had even met this instrumental before spitting over it, let alone "bonding" with it, and he created the goddamn thing. And yes, I'm aware of what the song title is actually referring to. This track seemed hollow, with the only bit of heart coming from the otherwise-unnecessary guest star Melanie Rutherford, who flubs a line that Milk kept on the final cut. You know, like a dick.
14. ELEC (OUTRO)
Milk's end credits roll over nearly two minutes of a chorus to a nonexistent song (the beat isn't bad, though), before he violently shoves you into some dark 1980's synths that actually close out the project. Kind of a weird way to end things, but that's not to say that any of this was technically bad, and besides, it's his album and his vision, I guess.
FINAL THOUGHTS: After an incredibly promising introduction, Tronic almost immediately falls apart. leaving in its wake a mess of discordant electronic sounds and wasted potential. I find it admirable that Black Milk wanted to take a page from his late friend and mentor Dilla's playbook and try to expand upon his production style, but Tronic might have worked out a bit better had it mirrored Dr. Dre's similarly-titled solo debut, The Chronic, and featured guest rappers on essentially every goddamn song. Milk's not a terrible songwriter, but his bars would sound better if they were delivered through the perspective and the voice of a surrogate rapper: it's kind of like the guy is rapping for the hell of it and doesn't necessarily feel passionate about it one way or the other, which is a shame. Tronic isn't an outright failure, and I'm fully aware that many hip hop heads hold this album in high regard, but I'm just not one of them: I like a few of the songs, but the project as a whole just doesn't do it for me.
BUY OR BURN? The tracks listed below (well, two and three-fourths of them, anyway) are worth a listen, but the rest of the album is so bland that there's no way I could ever recommend anyone spend actual money on this shit. Sorry.
BEST TRACKS: "Long Story Short"; "Hell Yeah"; "The Matrix" (minus Pharoahe Monch)
There's a little more Black Milk to see here.