As the buzz of many of hip hop’s young leaders-to-be evolves from loud commotion into hushed whispers, Black Milk has stayed relevant by remaining focused on creating music that endures. He’s achieved recognition from fans, critics, and his peers as one of the best producers around, and when coupling that talent with his sharp lyricism and stylish delivery as an emcee, Black has proven to be one of the most vital hip hop artists of his generation.
This is already clear to those who heard his 2008 album Tronic, which capped a successful and astonishingly prolific year (in which he also released collaborative full-length releases with rappers Bishop Lamont and Fat Ray, as well as producing the acclaimed solo album from Slum Village’s Elzhi). Tronic showcased a growth in production technique that few expected from a beatmaker best-known for chopping samples, as his signature drums were now peppered with live instrumentation and richer arrangements.
2009 looked to be another year of tremendous progress for Black Milk’s career, and after touring Europe with his newly-formed band in the summer, he returned home to Detroit ready to launch efforts on his next album. The year took an unexpected turn as his mentor Baatin of Slum Village–who Black credits with launching his professional career–suddenly passed away. Only weeks later, Black’s manager Hex Murda fell into a coma and was paralyzed with a rare pontine stroke. The quick succession of these events eerily mirrored the abrupt deaths of Detroit legends J Dilla and Proof in 2006, stunning the close-knit hip hop community in the Motor City. Things only got worse for Black as he dealt with additional deaths within his family over the next few months. 2009 had become the most difficult year of his life.
As the year came to a close, he returned to recording, and announced that his next release would be audaciously titled Album of the Year (Fat Beats/Decon). Black quickly explained that the title was referring to the course of events from the previous 12 months. Many fans and critics discounted that explanation, expressing either excitement or objection that he was brashly proclaiming that his work would be the year’s best before the year had even started.
Far from a melancholic work, Album of the Year once again sees Black Milk working to break new ground in hip hop production, and to both refine and redefine his sound. While continuing to construct the skeletons of the tracks on his same trusted AKAI MPC-2000 XL that he’s been using for years, he now employs a team of studio musicians and session players to add new layers of fat and muscle to his songs, with most of the players’ parts composed by the artist himself. A broad range of influence shines through in the tracks, with tinges of rock, reggae, and afrobeat joining his trademark hip hop bangers.
Other than the heavy contributions from both members of his live band (vocalist/keyboardist AB and drummer Daru Jones), the album exclusively features players and vocalists from his hometown of Detroit, including vocalist Melanie Rutherford, bassist Tim Shellaberger, and the versatile horn player and string arranger Sam Beaubien (who arranged horns and strings on Mayer Hawthorne’s A Strange Arrangement). The few guest raps are provided by Royce Da 5’9″, Elzhi, and newcomer Danny Brown.
Few artists in hip hop are able to create music that can rise above expectations and defy categorization. Black Milk welcomes the challenge to accomplish what his others cannot, and he’s doing it not only with his acclaimed recordings but also with an electrifying live show. Performing with a small combo including drummer Daru Jones and keyboardist AB, the tracks are taken to another level on stage. Both Album of the Year and exciting live performances across the globe are sure to elevate Black Milk that much closer to the star status many have predicted.