Black Milk Lets His Talents Shine On ‘If There’s A Hell Below’
Some of rap's most genius as well as eclectic acts have hailed from Detroit, and producer/rapper Black Milk has been there to witness them all. This year, The D has continued to bless us with a new star-in-the-making in the form of Dej Loaf, as well as releases from long time Madlib collaborator, Guilty Simpson. If There's A Hell Below, which the title is inspired by the infamous Curtis Mayfield song, is Black Milk's attempt to continue this current trend in great Detroit music, as well as capitalize on the acclaim from his 2013 album No Poison, No Paradise.
The album immediately draws you into Black Milk's Detroit with what sounds like a field recording of people on the street, soon transforming into a psychedelic chant and the introduction to "Everyday Was." Here, dark strings, and heavy bass lead Black Milk's gritty recollections of growing up ("Have you addicted like that shit my Auntie smoked in the '80s") and his hip-hop ambitions ("Before labels we banged on tables in that lunch room"), but Mel hits us with a beautiful hook to offset the aggressive environment.
A sample sounding like gypsy music carries us into the next track "What Its Worth" and then fades beautifully into a low rider groove where Black Milk details and justifies his struggle over 808s. Then, Blu & Ab lend their talents to the next song "Leave The Bones Behind." Blu spits "December to November, again, again / The latest news delivered from the heads under the pendulum swingin' like strange fruit" to open his verse. And on this track Black Milk continues to display his versatility as a producer, letting their rhymes unfold over a menacing guitar loop.
On the next song, "Quarter Water", Pete Rock shows up. Now, normally this would be a good thing, but in the case of Hell Below, The Soul Brother's appearance isn't eventful. Black Milk and Pete Rock do drop gems over an intricate instrumental. "No I can't lie / See them dollar signs in my eyes / Pray to God and hope I don't die / All we wanted was a piece of the pie," says Black Milk. Pete Rock follows with, "Live in the moment, word to the wise / Get to the money, maintain your pride." But it is here that Black Milk's trademark production style unfortunately works to his disadvantage.
Switching gears to "Hell Below," Black Milk layers Gene Obey's morose and breathy singing over a jazzy standard of an instrumental, complete with uncompromisingly tight, fast-paced drums. It is accompanied by what sounds like an upright bass, and the occasional few notes on a horn. And this comes before, out of all the songs on the album, Black Milk's ode to his hometown's techno history, "Detroit's New Dance Show" where he continues to rap about life in the streets, but over uniform and repetitive claps and bass.
In a similar fashion, the album continues somewhat haphazardly. Whereas at its beginning, Black Milk's diversity in sound kept the album interesting, as it progresses certain tracks and sounds start to oppose one another. For example, "All Mighty" opens with thunderous and abrasive drums, has multiple transitions, and features Black Milk flexing his talents, but follows "Story And Her" a sweet and evocative tale of Black Milk's meeting with a girl who rejected him when he was in high school. The surprising juxtaposition is more off-putting than it is refreshing.
After a welcomed Bun B feature on "Gold Piece", "Grey For Summer" and "Up & Out" finish off the album nicely. "Grey for Summer" is nostalgic and Black Milk's bars are cinematic as he describes summer as a youth; "Homies takin' sips outta brown paper bags / Summer time fire hydrant on blast/ 100 degrees in the shade, make 'em go crazy / Pull out the thing go blast / homies on the front lawn, standing on the grass / Tellin' lies 'bout chicks, never had laughs." On the last song, "Up & Out," Black Milk doesn't mince words summarizing his message: "You've seen hell before, my niggas already lived it / If there's a hell below then we already in it / Tell your White friends though, come and pay us a visit." His passion is definitely worth revisiting the song alone.
Black Milk's versatility shines on Hell Below, even if at times some parts felt disjointed. This is a small complaint for an overall album that culminates in the talented musician effectively communicating a consistent concept through the LP. At its end, the listener remembers that though If There's A Hell Below has its ups and downs, Black Milk let's the music speak for itself.—John Barnes