Black Milk is a paradoxical artist, one defined by both wild reinvention and stasis. To this point, every other Black Milk album is a corrective, somehow a refutation of the album that came before it. He keeps pressing reset and then playing the game the same: Tronic was his vaunted abandonment of vinyl fetishism for synthesizers; Album of the Year his embrace of live-band instrumentation; No Poison, No Paradise his nightmare-filled stab at creating a ’70s soul epic. But put them on shuffle and the delineations disappear—they all sound like Black Milk tracks. On If There’s a Hell Below, for the first time, he consciously takes a sonic mulligan, trading in the same murky Castlevania synth-lines, wrecking-ball drums and dark-night-of-the-soul wails as its predecessor.
So, why does it sound better than that album? Because it’s a new Black Milk record, which always sound incrementally closer to some Ideal Black Milk Album that may or may not ever exist. This makes him a difficult artist to love, but an easy one to like. He’s constantly halving the distance to his target, getting closer but not quite getting there. But those infinitesimal improvements on Hell Below—indeed, the very places where it remains static—show, in some ways, what that Ideal Album might look like.
Most importantly, he’s acknowledging where his talents lie. The old line on him is: great producer, shitty rapper. If the dude could quit spitting double-time platitudes about getting faded backstage, the thinking goes, he’d release a great record. On No Poison, No Paradise, though, he dialed back his eagerness on the mic and let the beats breathe. This trend continues on Hell Below, particularly on “Story and Her”, a sprightly, smooth-jazz Tribe throwback that evokes Q-Tip more than Dilla. Over soft vibes, Black Milk drops sing-song come-ons that tumble organically into a low-key verse. The lyrics are as trite and sanctimonious as can be (think Dizzee Rascal’s “Jezebel”), but as the beat morphs, halfway in, to a keening, insistent guitar lick, Milk follows suit, with a wide-open flow painted in blank space. The crooning intro melts into an almost spoken-word outro, with a rhyme scheme that snaps into place as if only to tug the verse onward.
He sounds, in other words, good on the track—a first for the emcee. He repeats the feat on the nearly 3-minute conclusion “Up & Out”, which is just a drum loop, some scratches, and a delirious, stuttering mic performance. In both instances, he raps in reverence of the beat, letting his glorious drums hit without shouting punchlines over them. Elsewhere, he resolutely does not screw up highlights like the proggy “All Mighty”, the dense, clattering “Quarter Water”, or “What It’s Worth”, which recalls early Kendrick Lamar, of all people, in its tuneful sense of melancholy. He’s always seemed to want to be Black Thought, but he comes across more like T.I. on the best parts of Hell Below, saying very little but saying it well.
The focus, then, stays on the production, which is, as usual, an absolute feast. He’s grown fond of the mid-track left-field switch-up, sometimes just for a bar or two (“Hell Below”, “Scum”), and of the short, dusty outro loop (pretty much every track). While this might sound scattered, in practice it’s just the opposite: He’s settled down a bit, flicking between beats with Madlib’s ease. A lot of his earlier stylistic about-faces were because of an anxiety, a tension between analog and digital production methods, which a recent LP and EP (tellingly called Synth or Soul and Glitches in the Break) seem to have eased. He found the ghost in the machine, and so he’s agitating less over realness—over fidelity to the “old school”. The music on Hell Below is one big wistful wash of sound, unified, but full of idiosyncrasies. (Bun B, for example, raps atop a bed of trilling flutes.)
We often talk about listening to Black Milk rap as the cost of entry for listening to Black Milk produce. That’s cold, but valid: his relatively flat collaborative work suggests that he saves his best beats for himself. But perhaps it’s also a mis-framing of the argument, in light of Hell Below’s success. In an interview with Complex last year, he referred to an incongruous blast of free jazz on No Poison, No Paradise as “a Spike Lee movie … written via a rap song.” A more skillful emcee would recreate Lee’s sense of place and character with words, but Black Milk needs the music to do the talking. On If There’s a Hell Below, he lets it.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1zy7Zsp