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Black Milk – Fever

Dan Webb

Sungenre Album of the Month – March 2018

Prolific Detroit rapper, producer and bandleader Black Milk, AKA Curtis Cross, has delivered a blistering, progressive and socially-aware album in Fever, his first studio output since 2014’s If There’s a Hell Below. Album opener “unVEil” immediately takes us to an astral realm, with Ian Fink’s stellar yet subtle synth lines accompanying complicated, shuffling rhythmic grooves provided by none other than legendary session drummer Chris Dave (D’Angelo, Adele, Justin Bieber). It serves admirably as an opening track, carefully and concisely constructed, with jazz guitar licks provided by supremely talented local guitarist Sasha Kashperko weaving in and out. It sets the scene and tone for the remainder of the album nicely. Although Sudie and Cross’ vocals feel sparse and choppy in a somewhat improvised, stream-of-consciousness fashion, Cross’ topical, politically-charged sentiment soon becomes apparent in the form of “fuck the leader and your leadership”.

Second track, “But I Can Be” arrives suddenly and without warning. “Trying to paint a profound picture, holding the brush, won’t put it down til I put the right colours inside your sound system,” pronounces Cross before acknowledging his roots and race, in a precursor to some of the themes to come on later tracks. The jagged, jittery feel of the instrumentation holds more than one might suspect at first glance. The straight feel in the verses is nudged along by mechanical guitar chords, subtly and cleverly contrasting with the swung chorus sections, which contains the sole lyric “But I could be wrong”. Things step up another notch on the next track, “Could It Be”. It’s a rag to riches tale – “whole hoods celebrate when the tables turn,” although due to the juxtaposition, one can’t help but wonder if Cross is now taking aim at a wider collective, following his previous exercise in introspection. Perhaps the chorus of “But I Can Be” hints that the title for this song should instead be read as “Could It Be (Wrong)”. Long-time collaborator Malik Hunter provides a bouncy bassline foundation for this track, which, aided by electronic percussion and a solid drum beat, takes on an almost disco feel.

“2 Would Try” is an interesting composition, prominently featuring a sampled Fender Rhodes keyboard part which sounds like it has been pitch shifted and time stretched ever so slightly, to bend to the songwriter’s needs. Kashperko’s jazz guitar weaves in and out in a D’Angelo-esque manner, with a horn section later following a similar pattern. The chorus, adding a hint of pop sensibilities to the proceedings with vocals from Dwele, is somewhat reminiscent of The Roots circa How I Got Over (2009). “Laugh Now Cry Later” starts with layered, incessant, racially-charged commentary which sounds as though it could have been lifted straight from American cable news. “Do I see a soul or do I see a façade,” asks Cross at the start, before intoning “I see the whole world different now,” in the chorus. The rapper rounds on police shootings and a lack of action brought about by a social media-induced trance, in some of his sharpest, most eloquent prose on the album so far – “From raps and movies, to black is beauty, cop didn’t feel the same, felt he had to shoot me…” and “some people hoping to peel, some hoping to heal, talking to a profile, hoping it’s real”.

On “True Lies”, his heavily-syncopated vocals hit out at organised religion and the American education system for cultivating false hope in youth, over backing instrumentation reminiscent of 60s/70s funk band The Meters. Track seven, “eVE” serves as a brief interlude, with layers of watery synths, harsh chords and subtle psychedelic guitar. The heavily percussive “Drown” offers evolving, complex rhythmic textures and another sharp-tongued critique of police brutality towards Black Americans – “it’s like, officer, officer, what have you done, how many apples can spoil a bunch, you just need one, so if you can’t stand up when fellow officer shoot a kid with their hands up, I don’t know who we can trust.” The song changes tack for its outro, with heavily effected vocals, especially given the context of the aforementioned subject matter, sounding like ghosts.

“DiVE” serves as another instrumental interlude, offering a sunnier outlook and respite from some of the heavy themes before it. Its waltz-like feel and dancing flute melody recalls the work of jazz composer Dave Brubeck. “Foe Friend”, featuring heavily effected drums which catch the rising notes at the end of the repeated bassline phrase, is a fine showcase of the superb musicianship assembled for this project. “Will Remain” is simply brilliant, kicking off with Jacob Collier-esque harmonised vocoder stylings and featuring a driving beat which creates the impression that the song threatens to take off and speed up. A panning synth stimulates aural senses in all hemispheres. Finally, on the synth and vocoder afflicted “You Like To Risk It All/Things Will Never Be”, Cross professes “don’t fall for hype, I’m all like Tesla, no gassing me up.” It’s perhaps not the strongest track to finish on, although the final words muttered on the song and thus the album, by a sampled female voice, give it all the more weight – “I would say everybody is a potential victim.”

Black Milk delivers a healthy dose of funk, electronic, soul, rock, and hip-hop on his sixth studio album, Fever. His lyrics are sharp and topical, while his immense talent as a bandleader and producer is on display, enhanced by a supremely talented ensemble of musicians.