Despite the fact that he’s been working steadily these last 12 years, Black Milk remains one of hip-hop’s most underrated artists. The rapper and producer began his solo career with the decidedly conventional 2005 release Sound of the City, which featured the burgeoning hints of the artist’s tweaked genius throughout. His follow-up, Popular Demand (2007), was another set of squarely hip-hop tunes which were slightly distended by some of the out-there production.
It wasn’t until 2008’s Tronic that Black Milk crossed the threshold of hip-hop convention and more than a few eyebrows were raised. An odd, surreal meshing of hip-hop and electronica, the chilly, metallic synths provided the rapper with an unusual dimension of space with which to explore his pondering rhymes.
Harder, syncopated funk featured on his next outing, 365, employing a much more live feel before he would return with the nightmare-infused No Poison No Paradise, an utterly bizarre descent into a hip-hop no man’s land of permanent twilight and android groove. Still trapped in a phantasmagorical limbo, Black Milk would transmit from this musical internment the mellow comedown of If There’s a Hell Below.
Now somewhat humanized after the robotic takeover of his last few works, the album levels all the rapper’s influences down to a mid-tempo hum of rhyme and groove.
Full of colour and texture, the beats on If There’s a Hell Below are constructed like prisms; they pulse coolly with the fluid dexterity of skilled production while perfectly retaining their diamond crystalline shape. Rhymes are at once lucid and knocked about with shuddering abandon and the chilled grooves are turned over with a precision mathematical. Much of the album’s themes relay anxieties buried deep, manifested as sound when they are unearthed; they burble up to the surface with a sonic language lean and Technicolor.
As Black Milk’s work becomes ever more experimental, moving further into the worlds of jazz and electronica, his use of melodic structures has become more pronounced, such as on the album’s single, “What It’s Worth”. A gently pillowing groove of soft funk, the single reveals the rapper’s primary vocation of musical reinvention: to flood hip-hop’s nerve endings with a vibrant sensorium, resulting in sound you can see and feel.