Black Milk attempts to push the boundaries of Detroit hip-hop even farther than 2008's modern classic Tronic, but ultimately delivers a very, very good album that is mysteriously easy to lose in 2010's glut of great hip-hop.
With Black Milk, and especially Album of the Year, I feel like it's necessary to talk about preconceptions and double standards. The most common knock on Black is that he isn't much of a rapper. His flow is direct and intense, a sort of unraveling that feels urgent and precise. It puts Black in a position where his words carry a fantastic amount of weight to them, pushing them up to the forefront of his equally boisterous productions. As a producer first, this seems to have listeners at odds with how to approach Black. Somewhere, much like Kanye West, it was written that Black at his best could only be a capable rapper. He might have something to say, but who cares how he is saying it?
Speaking of Kanye, in the wake of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it is definitely harder to judge Album of the Year. After all, however you feel about Black Milk, it was pretty much common knowledge that Album of the Year would emerge out of its embryo as 2010's production pinnacle. But now it's hard to look at it in that context, though the album is littered with live instrumentation -- particularly live drums, keys, and bass guitar -- that often has Black's work rivaling the vibrance of Ski's work for Curren$y and Smoke DZA this year. But it's definitely stuck in an older hip-hop ethos, so to now try and put it against Kanye's opus seems laughable. Another contextual blemish on Black Milk's own intended masterwork.
Somehow, in context, Album of the Year has become a forgettable album. The cultural overlooking of this record reminds me of Clipse's Til the Casket Drops in some ways: seminal artist of the decade takes chances to push his sound forward, underwhelms against expectations, and through no real fault of his own drifts into the static. But from the very opening moment of Album of the Year, Black Milk is on an intense mission that feels even more distinctly Detroit than either of his previous solo albums. "365" rehashes the concept of "Long Story Short", Black playing narrator as he takes us through his torturous 2009 and then dropping us into a world littered with slamming drums courtesy of Daru Jones. These drums are really the talking point of the record, crashing around with the abandon of an MC5 record, and at times, as on "Keep Going" and "Oh Girl", dominating the tracks to somewhat ludicrous degrees. Oftentimes these drums are handled more succinctly, though, such as "Deadly Medley" and "Black and Brown".
The girl record on this album, "Oh Girl", doesn't hit as pop as "Without U" did, but its soulful futuro-Motown feel that somewhat recalls PPP is a good sound within the album. Black explores Detroit in other ways, such as "Distortion" -- a track that fades out with a wailing guitar and vocals from Melanie Rutherford -- that has as much in common with '70s garage rock as '00s hip-hop. On the most Black Milk-like tracks of the album, "Deadly Medley" and "Black and Brown", we are presented with two of the collaborations of the year. "Deadly Medley" oozes with an attitude I wish permeated more of the album, as it matches the rest of the tracks' urgency while feeling more complete and accessible, while Black and Elzhi kill their parts and Royce Da 5'9" provides an unrivaled presence. Meanwhile, "Black and Brown" features Danny Brown at his best, providing another contender for verse of the year in a personal lexicon already full of contenders. These two songs ultimately loom large over the album not for these guests tearing it up (Black does too), but because they just feel more tethered to something, more complete than conceptual.
I won't accept criticism that Black Milk is a poor rapper, here -- his honesty is refreshing and his delivery is unique enough. And I won't really accept that the drums are too much -- they come close, but more often their signature is what makes this record what it is than what it isn't. What I will accept, though, is that despite Black Milk's obvious progression as both an MC and producer, he's somewhat mystifyingly turned out a product that I rarely have a desire to listen to. After it's first week on my hard drive, it was sometimes hard for me to even remember Milk released an album, and I finally came to review it out of a need to get my lists in order for PopMatters' year-end content. This album has a very strong mid-section, but it's opening and closing often lose me with either overbearing production or just general lackadaisical listening.
Ultimately, I am more than fine giving Black a certain benefit of the doubt. When I do fire this album up, there are a lot of sounds I love, and a lot of ideas I truly appreciate. It's just that, when taken as a whole, Album of the Year is certainly more exhausting than it deserves to be. While it's primary purpose is certainly fulfilled -- Black is able to exhume his soul of his previous year, addressing his close friends' deaths on "Distortion" and "365" with an openness I quite frankly wouldn't have expected -- the secondary purpose of being hip-hop's definitive moment of 2010 is woefully whiffed on.