On If There's A Hell Below, Detroit's Black Milk picks up where his 2013 album, No Poison No Paradise, left off. That album focused on narrative tales along with a moodier production aesthetic, adding another stylistic wrinkle to Black Milk's catalogue. The foreboding undercurrents remain on Black Milk's fifth album, with its Curtis Mayfield-alluding title, which is more of a first-person storytelling affair than No Poison No Paradise. Now residing in Dallas, TX, the producer and MC born Curtis Cross casts a look back at the childhood he spent in precarious environments in Detroit on many of the tracks.
Given that MCing was perhaps his weakest attribute when he first emerged in the mid aughts, then being posited as a production heir to the late J. Dilla, Black Milk continues his excellent improvement on the mic. He recalls lunchtable rapping on "Everybody Was," losing innocence on the Pete Rock-featuring "Quarter Water" and nods to his hometown's techno lore on "Detroit's New Dance Show." Sonically, though, that track is an anomaly, as Black Milk mainly delves deeper into gritty, soulful grooves meshing samples and live instrumentation. This almost seamless synthesis comes to the fore on "Story And Her," while bumping into a childhood crush goes awry on the contemplative double-timed rhyme of "What It's Worth." Black Milk reteams with Random Axe cohorts Sean Price and Guilty Simpson on "Scum" to give you a taste of what to expect from their sophomore effort, with a different yet equally sinister beat for every MC, taking a page out of the DJ Premier book.
It's the layering and attention to detail on these tracks that further reaffirms that Black Milk is now firmly in his own lane. Black Milk's incremental growth as an artist on full-lengths such as 2008's Tronic and 2010's Album of the Year and in-between album instrumental projects has been impressive, and means his projects now arrive with heightened expectations. Yet he comfortably matches them on If There's A Hell Below, where you get a sense you are listening to an artist who is fully aware of his strengths and limitations. Judging from the stories he recounts, he is genuinely thankful for the opportunity to creatively explore them. (Computer Ugly/Fat Beats)