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Album review: Black Milk, 'Album of the Year'

September 10, 2010 |  1:26 pm
Album-of-the-year-cover When you call your fourth full-length "Album of the Year," you're asking to be evaluated on the toughest metric possible. And indeed, the new album from Fat Beats-signed Detroit production wunderkind Black Milk plays out like a legacy bid -- an attempt to place him on the all-time A-List alongside his legendary production predecessors:  Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and the acknowledged Motor City messiah J Dilla.

Comparisons to the late James Yancey have accompanied Milk since the first half of the last decade, when he became one of Slum Village's go-to producers in the wake of Dilla's departure. Often branded Dilla's rightful heir, the 27-year-old born Curtis Cross has certainly inherited his knack for knocking off-kilter drums and turning soul samples spectral. And like Dilla, Milk's production prowess outstrips his rhyme skills.

Which is not to say that Milk is lackluster on the microphone, but merely limited. His voice and flow are above average, and he nimbly hurdles through the tricky measures of his zig-zagging beats. But while often witty, his battle-rap boasts rarely transcend the underground tropes that have endured for a decade-plus (i.e. elliptical raps about being good at rapping). The chief exception is "Distortion," a poignant meditation on death that reveals Milk's capabilities when inspired. Yet when the topic shifts to pro forma love jams ("Oh Girl" "Over Again"), his neo-soul tinged sounds intuitively shift away from his strengths (adamantine production that distills the thrashing cold and steel wool-rugged feel of Detroit).

With very few notable exceptions, most of hip-hop's greatest albums produced by rapper/producer hybrids have either come in groups (Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Slum Village, EPMD) or solo albums that featured a guest rapper on nearly every track ("The Chronic"). Rightfully cited as Detroit's best producer, Milk has his pick of any MC adjacent to the Great Lakes. And when he chooses to tap his contacts as on the Elzhi and Royce Da 5'9-featured "Deadly Medley" and the Danny Brown-aided, "Black and Brown," the results live up to his lofty aspirations.

But too often, he seems in love with his own genius, letting instrumental codas ramble on into bloated prog territory, with three of the album's 13 tracks clocking in or beyond the 5-1/2-minute mark. "Album of the Year" is a good record -- Milk is far too talented to turn in anything subpar. Yet it isn't the career-defining masterpiece that the Detroit disciples that litter the underground had hoped for. Then again, settling for album of the month isn't too shabby.

-- Jeff Weiss