On the first track off of “No Poison No Paradise,” his fifth and most recent full-length album, the Detroit-born emcee and producer Black Milk lets loose a nimble rhyme about hip-hop’s particular brand of nostalgia:
"And I complain
Like most of these cats that
Came in love with a certain era of music
And never thought it would have came
With a curse, never thought it would have
Changed for the worse
But you see it's all objective
So now I walk into the next era with a hunger
Bigger than the one I left with
Makin' sure I'm givin' y'all the next sh-t"
With those thoughtful, yet ambitious lines, Black Milk, who will be appearing at the Middle East Downstairs in Cambridge on April 18, simultaneously examines a conflict within himself and engages a wider debate around so-called “real” hip-hop—a debate that has been alive in the media of late, thanks to the hip-hop emcee Lord Jamar criticizing the supposed feminizing of the genre at the hands of skirt-wearing artists like Kanye West and Le1f. But Black Milk rejects the term, even when it is used to compliment him.
“People look at me and say things like, ‘you’re producing that real hip-hop,’” he said recently over the phone from Dallas, where he lives. “That sh-t gets annoying after a while. Like, what is ‘real hip-hop’? What the f--k is that? It’s all music. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad. But I’m not necessarily trying to be waving the flag for real hip-hop. I’m just trying to be the one that’s waving the flag for the artist that’s creating progressive music.”
For Black Milk, making progressive music means blurring genres and crossing usual stylistic boundaries, like collaborating with Jack White, with whom he released a two-track EP on 7” vinyl in 2011, and working with the illustrator Upendo “Pen” Taylor on a series of instrumental/visual art projects titled “Fuzz, Freqs & Colors.” It also means touring with a four-piece band comprised of bass, guitar, keyboard, and a DJ. Black Milk has been performing with the quartet—dubbed Nat Turner in homage to the leader of the famous 1831 Virginia slave rebellion—for five years. “I kind of found myself loving the fact that I could add so many different dynamics to my live show, you know, versus just me and a DJ,” he says.
That looseness is evident in his new EP, “Glitches In The Break,” which was released digitally on March 4 and will be available on vinyl April 19. More than anything, it is a celebration of Black Milk’s considerable skills and eccentric taste as a producer. It begins with a bombastic instrumental introduction built around a dissonant, jazz-inflected piano riff, and then careens swiftly through a series of off-kilter beats and succinct rhymes.
Black Milk is a self-proclaimed vinyl-head who likes to mine samples from obscure records. Though his beat-making style is often connected with the neo soul leanings of the late Detroit producer J Dilla, he claims a wider palate. “I’m not necessarily ever just looking for a particular sound, I’m more so listening for a particular feeling,” he explains.
On “Glitches In The Break,” that feeling could easily be surprise. Even when Black Milk creates an irresistible beat, he never lets you fully relax into the groove. Songs stop and start abruptly against a murmuring backdrop of sliced-and-diced noise. Sounds emerge suddenly in the space between beats, consequences of a dial turned too quickly: electronic bleeps, radio static, fragments of television reruns. For Black Milk, the fuzz of a turntable needle is as quotable as the crystalline tones of a xylophone or an ethereal monastic chant. “Glitches” feels like a sonic journey through a computer’s circuit boards, where information is consumed and regurgitated in infinite variation. In Black Milk’s hands, the chaos is endlessly fascinating and occasionally beautiful.
According to the emcee, “Glitches In The Break” was a deliberate attempt to put out something light and fun after the dark, intensely personal “No Poison No Paradise.” The latter was a concept album built around a fictional character named Sonny, loosely based on Black Milk’s teenage self. Throughout the album the rapper, who grew up in Detroit with the given name Curtis Cross, evokes a series of dreamlike memories that shift viewpoint among different characters.
“Deion’s House” is perhaps the most adept and affecting. In it, Black Milk raps as one of Sonny’s friends, who knows that he himself will never make it out of the neighborhood and instead pins his hopes on Sonny: “I don’t mind to take the blame/ They already expect me to be the one to be insane/ In the jail or in the grave, gone/ You the only talent out our group/ Only one that got potential to get on/ So we make sure Sonny making songs.”
The narrator of “Deion’s House” is molded on the young men who used to bet on the basketball games in Black Milk’s neighborhood in west Detroit. A talented teenage athlete from a stable home, the budding emcee never felt pressured to do anything but excel. “They would never try to push me into what they were doing. You know, something illegal or something crazy. They wanted me to stay on the right path.”
The real brilliance of “Deion’s House” is its narrative conceit. Black Milk at once illuminates the deep loyalties and friendships of the young men he knew growing up, and casts ambivalence on the popular pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps hip-hop success myth, in which talented outliers employ innate ability and determination to launch themselves out of poverty. Black Milk reveals the dark side of this tale—for every Jay Z or Kanye West, there are many less lucky supporters.
“A lot of emcees now are trying to take the time to say something that has a little more actual meaning or substance to it. Which is a good thing, but at the same time you can only tell the same story so much,” says Black Milk. “There are only a few rappers that can kind of really think outside of the box, and tell the ‘hood tale, but do it in an interesting way.”
“Glitches In The Break” feels like the sonic extension of this idea. The title refers to the aural artifacts and flaws that occur on recordings, like scratches on vinyl or the hum of electronic hardware. Though Black Milk is far from the first to play with this concept—there is an entire subgenre of electronic music based around glitchy media—the EP is at its core an exploration of ugliness and imperfection. More than that, though, it is a celebration of subverted expectations and avid experimentation, which has really been Black Milk’s modus operandi from the start.