While traditional record labels and the overall state of radio hip-hop is in a sad state of decline, there continue to be a rash of good underground coming from the Midwest. A little while back we caught up with Minnesota’s DoomTree, and last month I spoke about the stellar album from Detroit’s eLZhi. eLZhi’s The Preface, with a large amount of production provided by Black Milk has been on repeat on my iPod for a while, so I was excited to hear word of Black Milk‘s solo effort, Tronic, hitting shelves tomorrow. But you don’t have to wait til then to read about it… we got a sneak peak this weekend.
Black Milk’s work displays a feel for both the progressively electronic side of hip-hop, as well as nods to the nostalgic feel of using old samples. Both work to great effect on Tronic, and while some cuts are much stronger than others, the album’s diversity of sound and style provide something for any hip-hop listener. On “Long Story Short,” the album opens with a simple piano rift that is then covered up by a pulsing beat and heavy melody pieces to form the backdrop of Milk’s rhyme describing his ascension in hip-hop. As the song ends, horns come in to help transition the piece back to the easy piano of the beginning, almost as if he doesn’t want you to forget that he appreciates both the gentle and heavy-hitting aspects of the genre. This gives way to “Bounce,” a darker song using heavy synths that sound like they could have come out of the Blade Runner soundtrack. Black Milk’s style lyrically on this song uses quick starts and stops, breaking his lines up and sometimes rearranging words to emphasize points. How he feels he fits in is obvious when, lamenting the current state of hip-hop he states, “that’s when I clock in as an option when you need a breath of fresh oxygen.”
“Give the Drummer Sum” mixes bass and snare drums with some traditional horn pieces and a sped up sample with “it makes no sense.” While the song is solid, it exhibits one of Milk’s traits in that at times he seems to try to do a little too much. The heavy rapping and funky drums fit nicely over the melody of the song, but the sample seems like one piece too many. This moves into “Without You,” a fantastic inversion of the usual hip-hop love song. Here, rather than taking the time to rap about a special woman in his life, he takes the opposite tact by rapping about how much better he is on his own. What’s special about this song is that he puts it over a playful and bouncy track, helping this break-up song to avoid any bitterness or darkness so commonly associated with them. It’s a welcome twist to a common theme.
“Hold It Down” comes next and rips with a beat and synth combo that sounds like it could have come out of an ’80s pop song like “Tainted Love.” But just when you think it might be a slow rehash, Milk uses the head nodding beat to rap quickly, ripping through the song in a way that feels like lightening on wheels, while still mixing in a stop and start that keeps it fresh. This is followed by one of the strongest tracks on the album, “Losing Out” with Royce da 5’9″. The strength of this album comes not just in the speed of the verses, but in the successful mixture of the futuristic sound some of the songs aspire more to while interspersing a repetitive and backbone providing sample. Unlike the repetition on “Give the Drummer Sum,” which wears thin by the end of the track, the use of the sample here as catalyst for the verses keeps the entire cut moving.
Heavy bass synth rules the DJ Dez featured track “Overdose,” and successfully conveys the feeling of an overbearing and heavy runaway train. But not one to become too bogged down in one style, or leave the listener too overwhelmed, this is followed by the easy flow and lightly vocally backed “Reppin for You,” which includes another fantastic line regarding the state of the industry when he spits, “This dude asked me/, ‘what’s the answer to this hip-hop cancer/, I’m so hungry for real shit I feel like I’m fasting,'” and at times it feels like Black Milk, in his desires to be both progressive and retro, is starving to provide something real on multiple fronts. “The Matrix” is the cameo cut on the album, with appearances from Pharoahe Monch, Sean Price and DJ Premier and is followed nicely with the hi-fi sounding “Try.”
One of the most solid aspects of this album is that even in the heaviest rapping moments, Black Milk never wants the listener to forget how musically focused he is. Numerous songs have extended musical portions and the instrumental “Tronic Summer” exhibits this beautifully, taking a relaxed beat and infusing it with synths and keys for an easy driving song. Throughout the album, Black Milk does a good job of mixing up his style and production. At points futuristic and at others retro, Tronic displays a musically and lyrically diverse piece and while a few tracks hit a bit too hard for my liking, the overall feel of the album is sure to please anyone looking for some solid new hip-hop.