Black Milk, the Detroit rapper and producer born Curtis Cross, is a grown-ass man. Unless he’s reflecting on, say, his 13-year-old self’s hopes for new sneakers and a blue fitted cap on “Quarter Water” or his version of Kendrick Lamar’s Sherane on “Story and Her”, you will not find many vices on If There’s a Hell Below, his sixth solo album. What you will find are songs that reflect his maturity and dedication to the album as a form: a canvas for ideas that bubble up in the artist’s mind for months, even years. Cross isn’t pretentious about all this, either; Hell Below seems to be the inevitable result of an artist who arrived curious about different musical forms and has grown his way to master status. Nine years removed from his debut, he’s making some of the best music of his career.
These songs don’t always sound like just hip-hop songs; they’re more than that, sprawling epics in their own right. May Black Milk always retain his passion for the possibilities of drum loops, but he’s grown increasingly attracted to rich soundscapes and bold instrumentation, too. The booming but intricate opener, “Everyday Was”, immediately stamps the album as ambitious, all knocking drums and spacey synth lines. “Hell Below” and “Detroit’s New Dance Show” form a nine-minute stretch that showcases Black’s versatility as a producer. The first song is almost entirely instrumental, a burst of high-BPM drums and horn spritzes, while the second bumps with a techno pulse, giving it a similar musical glow even though Black raps on it. Somewhat disappointingly, his collaboration with BadBadNotGood, “Now or Never”, is missing here, but Black consistently matches the liveliness of that instrumental trio’s own arrangements, adding to his resume as a composer with lengthy outros and other inter-song connective tissue. If all this is indulgent, it helps that Black has really good taste.
Unless he wanted to perpetuate the notion that he’s now a better producer than rapper, Black needed to fill his Hell Below notebooks with detail and heart. Fortunately, the resulting album feels real. The second song here, “What It’s Worth”, features some of Black’s chief concerns in life; he wants to keep his mom in respectable living conditions and his brother on the straight and narrow. On “Leave the Bones Behind”, he echoes the idea more succinctly: “I think about my kinfolk with every pen stroke.” The response to “if there’s a Hell below” would presumably be “we’re all going to go,” as taken from the Curtis Mayfield song. But on “Up & Out”, Black declares, “then we already in it.” That’s one way to look at things, but ultimately, he wants to be clear that there’s always a way out.
Black’s penmanship is distinguished, so there’s always the risk that guests will disrupt the narrative if they’re not similarly conceptual or otherwise on-point. Here, Black’s recruited rappers from the Midwest (Guilty Simpson), the West Coast (Blu), and the South (Bun B). And, even Pete Rock, some 22 years removed from his debut with CL Smooth, shows up sounding (surprisingly?) youthful. Together, these gentlemen are tribute to the respect that Black’s contemporaries have for him regardless of their own background. Almost exactly three years ago, he collaborated with Danny Brown for the Black and Brown EP, and Lord knows Brown has left Black Milk in the dust as far as popularity goes. For better or worse, there are no hits here, but where the album lacks in mass memorability it more than makes up for in craftsmanship — a career highlight from an artist whose focus only improves with age.
Essential Tracks: “What It’s Worth”, “Leave the Bones Behind”