J Dilla sort of messed it up for everybody. It’s like what Michael Jordan did to every NBA player that will follow him. Or what The Notorious B.I.G. did to a lot of New York rappers who came after him. It’s not completely on purpose, but their impact was so deep that every artist whose style is similar is going to raise some very critical eyebrows in the best case scenario. That’s even if you’re paying tribute or just showing your influence. Then the question becomes whether the artist is straight up biting, looking back in reverence, or — even better — using the prior blueprint to carve an artistic identity.
A lot of which category an artist fits into lies within public perception, but from his first album until No Poison No Paradise, Detroit emcee/producer Black Milk has firmly aligned himself with the carving type. A big reason for how he does so is his competency as an emcee. He’s far from being the most technically skilled, but his trademark straightforwardness combined with a sense of fervor gives his work a sense of color, and a sense of direction, too. Having the high batting average Black Milk has on the boards helps a lot too.
You see some of that sort of brilliance he showed throughout 2010 standout Album of the Year in solid form during a five-track stretch that lasts from “Sunday’s Best” to “Parallels”. “Sunday’s Best” and “Monday’s Worst” takes the narrator through a two-day stretch that questions religion’s legitimacy and delves into existential angst without forcing those themes on you. Black Milk performs with an everyman’s sense of relatability. You can picture the narrator just hanging his head as he walks by the choir: “Bullets flying is the norm, so most kids walk without a fear/ Friends dying is the norm, so they walk without a tear.” Black Milk’s reminiscing on “Perfected On Puritan Ave” gives way to an instantly gratifying acid jazz breakdown before switching back to the warped, Disney-esque instrumental and the dread of “Dismal”. “Parallels” falls just short of sublime, as the spacy funk and the fragility of AB’s guest spot matches up for a pathos-invoking collaboration that feels all too short.
With the exception of the reaffirming victory lap of “Money Bags (Paradise)”, a lot of the material surrounding that five-track streak falls short. It’s not like the songs aren’t good by themselves; the neon-gazing ’80s funk of “Ghetto DEMF” and the nonchalance of the Robert Glasper and Dwele-featuring “Sonny Jr. (Dreams)” stick out nicely. But, there’s a directionless feel in how they’re linked together. Sometimes it sucks the energy right out of the room, like the induced drowsiness of the combination of “X Chords” and “Black Sabbath”. They’re not unlistenable, but missteps like these partially put Black Milk in the less interesting “J Dilla Reverence” category and make No Poison No Paradise feel more like a sidestep, albeit a very well-produced one.
Essential Tracks: “Sunday’s Best”, “Monday’s Worst”, and “Parallels”