In VH1’s documentary And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop, Outkast’s Andre 3000 noted that an artist’s musical output can be influenced by the artist’s environment. The fast pace of urban New York City, he intimated, contributes to the rawness of New York hip-hop, whereas the slower pace of the south lends itself to soul and funk grooves. Fascinating theory, isn’t it? Well, assuming there’s some validity to it, could the inverse also be true? Could musical output give us clues about an artist’s environment? If so, Black Milk’s Popular Demand evokes the gritty, razor wit of Detroit, Michigan’s freestyle battle scene. We saw a glimpse of Detroit life in 8 Mile — the hard beats, the cliques (shout outs to the “Three-One-Third”!), and the cross-racial economic disparities.
Black Milk’s 16 cuts on Popular Demand leave no doubt about his skills as a producer and an emcee. Previously, his production credits included work for Pharoahe Monch, Lloyd Banks, Slum Village, and Canibus. As an emcee, in addition to various guest spots, he’s known for his Broken Wax EP and his debut, Sound of the City (2005), which is certainly an appropriate title if we are to believe Andre 3000’s aforementioned observation. Here, the beats are powerful and aggressive (see “Sound the Alarm”, “Insane”, and “Watch Em” as examples), and they keep time with Black Milk’s confident vocal swagger. Clearly, this dude can rap (and don’t worry, you needn’t fear any “Got milk?” punch lines from me), but he’s most comfortable in territory that’s familiar — maybe too familiar — to listeners: out-rapping competitors and otherwise living life as a perpetual bad ass. You could say he’s consistent or maybe it’s the “same shit, different day” pulse of the city, but the album’s sameness also makes the album feel like you’re listening to the same song 16 times, even with stellar and creative beats as complements. No matter the rhythm, Black Milk maintains his cadence (it is, as he describes it, as “tight as a shirt tucked”), which gives the impression that he’s honed his vocal combat for rhyme battles.
Trouble is, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he could be unstoppable if he took the creative chances with his style and subject matter that he takes with his beats (the sample in “Say Something”, that sounds like a snippet of a Michael McDonald riff, ain’t no joke). Don’t get me wrong, if I had to choose between a song from Popular Demand and the playlists of most hip-hop oriented radio stations, I’d take a Popular Demand song without hesitation. It’s just exciting to hear an artist’s potential. In this regard, Popular Demand sounds like good news for Detroit.