Black Milk is the stage name of Detroit, Michigan hip hop MC and producer Curtis Cross. Influenced by A Tribe Called Quest, Cross began his hip hop career making basement mixes with a cheap drum machine and home karaoke system, and eventually produced his first track on a 2002 mixtape with Slum Village. His beat style, influenced heavily by soul and New York hip hop, has recently been infused with rock via a collaboration with Jack White and a backing rock band. Since his solo 2005 debut on Music House Records, Sound of the City, Black Milk has steadily released a stream of solo albums, collaborations and mixtapes totaling 11 works in total. 2008's Tronic LP, released on Fat Beats Records, was his first album to reach the charts, with a #76 position on the US R&B chart. In 2010, Fat Beats released Album of the Year, which hit #136 on the US chart and lead to a live band collaboration with Jack White on the Brain 7'' single. His most recent recording is a 2011 collaboration with Sean Price and Guilt Simpson entitled Random Axe.
Mention rap rock, and bad memories of the early 2000s likely come to mind. Rap rock usually ends up just being bad rock with an MC plopped on top, but 28-year-old Detroit rapper Black Milk proves that the genres can play nice. Black Milk (the solo project of MC Curtis Cross) weaves elements of rock, funk, and soul into his energetic hip-hop productions. They work so well together that you don't think, “oh, here's the rock part, and here's the hip-hop part.” Instead, the genres are intertwined into an exciting, and cohesive whole, just the way it should be. A talented hip-hop jack of all trades, Cross is a skilled rapper, producer, and beat maker. Releasing a solo or joint album nearly every year since 2005, Cross has carved out a respected place in Detroit's scene, and underground hip-hop nationwide. Cross even recently collaborated with Detroit rock god Jack White of the White Stripes on a pair of tracks. His latest release, 2010's “Album of the Year” has an audacious title, but the name actually comes from the events of 2009, a year of exceptional loss and turmoil for Cross, rather than a claim that it's the greatest album of the year. Cross used a live four-piece band to record the album, which gives it a vibrant organic feel, but the interesting part is how subtle it is. Without listening closely, it sounds like standard tried and true loop based hip-hop, except more energetic somehow. Listen more closely and the differences come into focus: the live drums crackle and explode, the jazzy piano and guitar moves and changes with the music, rather than staying in a static loop. All together it's an exciting effect that pumps life into the music while remaining grounded in hip-hop production styles of the last decade. While the specter of tragedy hangs over the album, Cross raps “one minute you're here, the next minute your friend's gone” in “365,” the album has a sense of perseverance rather than catastrophe. Cross' flow is precise, but pumped up and animated, and the music often matches. “Round of Applause” mixes horns, bongos and keys, and kicks into a spirited jam session. “Distortion” layers on funk guitar, but is really driven by the banging acoustic drums that power Cross' spitfire rapping. While “Album of the Year” wasn't THE best hip-hop record of 2010, its excellent production, lyrical prowess and truck loads of energy is an exceptionally compelling listen. Put it all together and you've got an album that's filled with texture and enough spirit to make you think Black Milk's next one could be everyone's album of the year.