Depending on when they caught on, fans of this producer-rapper always appear to be clamoring for his latest effort. While Black Milk’s third project, Popular Demand was certainly the one that propelled his name to the masses, it was his third, Tronic, that garnered universal acclaim. It featured Black Milk at the top of his game both behind the boards and in the booth. Hell, he went toe-to-toe lyrically with Royce Da 5’9” on highlight “Losing Out” while flaunting a beyond-impressive ear for crafting the perfect drum sound, especially on “Give the Drummer Sum” and “Hell Yeah”. And Black Milk wasn’t just working on solo efforts, either. Among scattered features, he produced the majority of Elzhi’s The Preface and recorded collaboration projects with Fat Ray and Bishop Lamont, respectively. But after Tronic, fans and critics alike wanted to know what the Motor City rapper-producer had in store for his next proper album.
Before he clarified the title for everyone, hip-hop heads were anxious about the announcement of Album of the Year because they wanted to know if it would actually be the finest album of 2010. Black Milk cleared the air, though, and noted that it refers to the last 12 months of his life. Yet, once opener “365” hits your eardrums, you can’t help but think that he really meant this would be 2010’s best record. And if it’s not that high on your list, don’t be shocked if at least flirts with the top three spots.
Just as Tronic was a career-defining moment for Black Milk, the same can be said for Album of the Year. And those drums he’s become so famous for? They’re here and they’re just as heavy. But, somehow, they have become more refined thanks to Daru Jones’s immense playing. Additionally, Black Milk furthered fleshed out his musical vision by enlisting bassist Tim Shellaberger, keyboardist/vocalist AB, and horns player/strings arranger Sam Beaubien. It makes for a slightly bigger, somewhat modified sound compared to what was heard on Tronic. And you hear it specifically on tracks such as drunk-jazz banger “Round of Applause” and album-closer “Closed Chapter”, which offers a warm amalgam of ’70s guitars, vibrant stuttering drums, and more than three minutes of tight jamming. But Black Milk isn’t only looking to experiment with a live band. He can still blow out your speakers with “Warning (Keep Bouncing)” and “Deadly Medley”, both acting as trunk-shattering driving anthems.
His progression as a producer and band leader aside, it’s Black Milk’s ability on the microphone that has improved considerably. He was never a lackluster or boring MC, it’s just that his talents as a rapper took more time to develop. He already showed flashes of his growth on tracks such as “Losing Out” and elsewhere on his previous LP. But on Album of the Year, his bars are even more polished. Sure, he might drop a few punch line duds here and there, and his braggadocio-heavy lyrics might not appeal to everyone. But when he’s on, he’s on.
I know everyone has quoted this line to death, but the “My shit is Martin Luther, your shit is Martin Lawrence” punch line on “Deadly Medley” reminds me of the day you would do a double-take and break the rewind button on your Walkman. Then take into account that he goes bar for bar with two other Detroit talents, Royce Da 5’9” and Elzhi, without being overshadowed. The same goes for “Black and Brown” with the seemingly always-on Danny Brown, who makes one of the best Beverly Hills Cop and Kirby references I have ever heard. His shit-talking aside, Black Milk also offers some compelling insight into just how difficult his past year has been, from losing a close friend, Slum Village’s Baatin, to watching his manager, Hex Murda, suffer from a stroke. Refreshingly, though, Black Milk doesn’t let his tone and lyricism enter a realm too downtrodden or depressing. Rather it comes across as a “I really just need to get this shit off my chest” battle cry, minus the angst or whining.
If Album of the Year has any flaws, they reside in the minor lyrical duds and its lack of replay value. That’s not to say you won’t play the hell out of this record when you first hear it. But it will become an album you reach for during specific moods, except for repeated listens to the lyrical assault that is “Deadly Medley”. Like many albums this cohesive and structured, though, there is a time and place for this effort. And when that time and place sync up, be prepared to be amazed.