Black Milk is a hip-hop Renaissance man.
The Detroit native, rapper-producer, and prolific bandleader has been making music with his finger on the pulse of hip-hop—years ahead of his time—for over a decade. With every album, it seems Black Milk plunges deeper and deeper into the asymptotic line of perfection. On Milk’s seventh studio album, FEVER, where he is the sole producer, he delivers both his production and rapping opus, but is just a hair shy of merging these musical identities.
In contrast to 2013's No Poison No Paradise, FEVER is gloves-off music. Black Milk leans into distinctly Detroit-sounding electronic flourishes and warms them with his bandleader know-how and live instrumentation (“2 Would Try”). This is a record focused on the heat of a movement—both sonic and sociopolitical. In that way, FEVER contains some of his most poignant and blunt raps to date.
Black Milk takes every system of oppression to task with wit and brevity. For each critique of America—be it the education system and racialized education (“True Lies”) or the prison industrial complex and the murder of unarmed Black men (“Drown”)—his delivery sharpens. His conviction makes it clear that this hard pivot to politics is not a simple byproduct of appeasing listener expectations of Black art. No, in truth, the sickness of America has gotten the better of him, and this cathartic release is his means of breaking his FEVER, if you will.
Par for the course, then, FEVER plays out like a sick day, narrated by the electronic elements of this proverbial score lessening as the record progresses. We begin in the midst of a fever dream, with caustic imagery and the sonic equivalent of sweating the bed making up the first arc of the album. Following “eVE,” there’s an ease to the project as more live instrumentation and balming swaths of sound drive the second arc.
Down to the last detail, the music is engrossingly reflexive. When spitting about his mother’s warnings on “But I Can Be,” the creeping rhythm embodies the dangers lurking every corner for a Black man in America. The contradictory and paranoia of “True Lies” is furthered by a pained and winding guitar and vocals ricocheting off the personified psyche Black Milk situates us in throughout FEVER.
To say there are traditional moments on this record would be selling Black Milk short. Where “Could It Be” is approachable in its steady rhythms and openly cutting raps, the skitter of computerized keys whip the whole track into Black Milk’s unique dimension.
The album thrives when each layer of production has room to breathe and engulf the listener. Samples atop saxophones atop heavenly textured percussion loops make “Laugh Now Cry Later” an aural gem. “eVE” is a pseudo-psychedelic tumbling and an excellent break from the frenetic and panic-inducing “True Lies.” Black Milk has the unique ability to make us fall through space and be suspended indefinitely all at once. The syrupy bass grooves, woodwinds, and seashore guitar riffs give “DiVE” the very same drifting quality.
As with every rapper-producer album, we can’t avoid listening for and assessing the quest to balance the beats and bars. Ten tracks in, we happen upon “Foe Friend,” an excellent piece of hip-hop music. Black Milk’s flow is precise, he manages to tell a clear story without allowing the track to slip into a spoken word piece, and from the title to the final word, there is a fine grip of wordplay. But are we knocked on our backs? Perhaps we rock on our heels, but to say the rapping levels the listener in the same way as the production would be disingenuous.
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FEVER is not an uneven sounding album, and some of Black Milk’s best rapping to date lives in these 12 tracks, but there is never a moment of harmony. Though every track is a photo finish, the production outperforms the raps. Even so, nothing on this record feels half-baked. Milk does not pour himself into one feature of his music only to starve the other. He is firing on all cylinders, in every facet, which leads us to believe that the ultimate marriage of music and delivery is within reach.
Whether you know him for his expansive concepts and surrealist writing, or for his long-standing history as a producer for Slum Village, Danny Brown, and more, FEVER is the next destination for Black Milk, but it will not be his final stop.
Three Standout Tracks
This track embodies the thesis of the entire album, in content and in sonic form. It’s cacophonous and sinister without sounding cluttered, politically poignant, and emblematic of FEVER’s thoughtful sequencing. The record hinges on the tense swell of “True Lies,” but the song is polished enough to stand alone.
Sunny keys ever so gently pebble this groove of a track. All of Black Milk’s beats are cinematic experiences, but few have been as inviting and nurturing for the soul as “Will Remain.” Black Milk’s rapping saunters over the bass line with an easy elegance. This track could be renamed “waltz-for-one type beat,” and we would be none the wiser.
“You Like To Risk It All / Things Will Never Be”
A two-fer, so perhaps this is cheating, but Black Milk slips into some nicely syncopated flows and gets ever closer to bridging the gap between rapper and producer. The bass is addictive, and the final line of the record (“I would say everybody is a potential victim”) is just harrowing enough to avoid being contrived.