Why do I love hip-hop? WHY DO I LOVE HIP-HOP?!?
Might as well ask me why the sky is blue or why chicken tastes delicious. Sometimes the stuff closest to us, our daily habits or most common occurrences, are the hardest to explain. Case in point, my love for hip-hop. I've been asked why I love hip-hop more times than I can count and to be honest, I've never had a great answer. Trying to put into words the feeling I get from the "Devil In A New Dress" beat is literally impossible. How can I possibly explain the rush from being first row at the Jurassic 5 show or getting to interview 9th Wonder? There's no gif, Anchorman clip or combination of human words that will do it justice. The only thing I have to rely on is the music. I need an album so cohesive, so flavorful, so well-constructed that every blood, sweat and tear drop can be heard oozing from each note. An album where anyone who lays ears upon its glory and sheer magnitude, from my 70-year-old father to my country music loving ex-girlfriend, would even for a fraction of a second have some grasp of why it is I spend 12 hours a day on a computer rifling through video game samples and photos of rappers as kids and love every second of it. If they could hear this album they would get it.
That album is Black Milk's astounding If There's a Hell Below.
Am I being overly dramatic? Probably, but I'm just riding the ethereal high of discovering that new favorite album, so forgive me if I want to shout it from the proverbial rooftops...
I LOVE BLACK MILK!!!!!!
I LOVE IF THERE'S A HELL BELOW!!
Okay, now that it's (somewhat) out of my system...
I can't quantify why I love hip-hop, but maybe, just maybe I can capture the essence of this album so it helps you understand how I can possibly love something so much. Here it goes.
To start, let's rewind the clock to 2:30 AM last night. There I was in bed, wide-awake. I had just caught up on Homeland, but still I was not the least bit tired so I picked up the computer in hopes of finding an album to send me off into dream-town. Normally it's jazz, but I was feeling more rappity and wanted something that wouldn't immediately make me fall asleep. Black Milk was right there, begging for me to listen. Now, I was waiting for the perfect moment to jump headfirst into If There's A Hell Below, and I had concluded that moment was Friday after work, driving around the neighborhood with the windows down; I had been looking forward to that moment the whole week. But there it was, sitting on the front page of DJBooth like that first Christmas present under the tree practicably begging me to crack open one of the sides, see what it was, and tuck it right back under there. Nobody would be any the wiser and I could still have my me time on Friday. But I had waited with a zen-like patience for this long and I was not going to spoil my first listen moment, right?
I lasted 10 minutes...
I put on the fancy headphones (dedicated to when I really need to hear an album), took a puff (because why the fuck not right?), pressed play, sat back and waited for the goodness.
Within two minutes I had tears in my eyes. I took poetic license earlier, but I am not exaggerating when I tell you Black Milk's If There's A Hell Below made me cry...and it was only the first song. "Everyday Was" is far and away one of the most enthralling listens I have had in a long time. I had no idea where the producer/emcee double-threat (putting it lightly) would take it, but I was ready for the ride. As the sample developed into a primal chant, my heart started to beat faster and faster. As badly as I wanted to get to the inevitable culmination, I was savoring the anticipation, the nervous energy because it is such a rare moment in time. Not every album makes you feel this way, and most don't make me feel this way within 90 seconds. The rest of the song had me literally writhing on my bed (pause) because I didn't quite know how to express my emotion properly. At one point, I was laughing, I still had tears in my eyes, but I was just literally cracking up; 2:30 in the morning, sitting on my bed, audibly laughing because it was too much to comprehend.
You know when in a movie or show, someone starts laughing at something terrible because it's the exact moment they snapped? That's exactly how I felt. My brain couldn't process all these emotions I had to Black Milk's jabbing, elegantly grungy delivery sewn so eloquently to the textured, horn-splashed beat and just started laughing. I was doing my typical, turn up dance too, but it was more violent and frantic than normal. If my roommate had seen me, he would have thought I was halving a seizure or some sort of Vietnam acid flashback. Though it was only four minutes, I felt like I had just gone on a journey of a lifetime; I laughed, I cried, I danced, I let the rap engulf me and take control. It was just for a short time, but it's one of the most powerful, emotional first reactions I have had to any piece of music and I enjoyed every ephemeral second. The starting point, the chant, felt like a faint, distant memory, the faded image of a life I would never go back to; a life without one of the most enthralling hip-hop songs of the last few years.
As I finally my wiped the tears from my eyes and got my bearings after having a near out of body experience - right around the end of "Leave The Bones Behind" - I was able to be enough of a functioning person to really listen. So that's what I did. For the next nine songs, I didn't move. I didn't check Twitter. I jut sat and listened. I marveled at Black's ability to stay so pure to the essence and soul of hip-hop yet try so many different things that really challenged me as listener. He samples as well as anyone in rap history, and manages to do it in brand new ways that I have never heard before; his beats change and progress so much and so fluidly, it can be hard to tell where one song ends and the next begins (making this a true cover-to-cover album). He weaves an intricate tale of a lady from his past atop a borderline bossanova-esque ("Story and Her") right after a gritty, abstract and retro dance tune ("Detroit's New Dance Show") with a fluid yet scratching flow (I could listen to him rap forever).
First Pete Rock then Bun B? How many emcees could do that?! The drums on the outro of "Grey For Summer"? Get outta here! Pure yet gritty, vibrant and rich yet callous and dark, this album takes me to the same places I have gone a million times before while at the same time sending me off into a uncharted territory. This album encompasses everything I love about hip-hop and is as close to an explanation as I could provide for why I have given my life to this art. To put it simply this album is why I do what I do.
Honestly, I didn't intend for this to be a review. I'm still not even sure it is. I have only been listening to it for like 15 hours and am in no way qualified to speak in large platitudes about this album's place in rap history. I can give it 5 spins or a seven out of 8.35 unicorns, but honestly all that shit is so unimportant to me now. I went into this wanting Black Milk to prove to the world that he is with out a doubt one of the best artists in music; dying to find that song that I could show to anyone and make them see what real music is, but now I don't even really care anymore. Once I pressed play, top 10 lists and underrated emcee slideshows vanished and I was left with nothing but a piece of music that spoke to me in ways very few albums have.
There is so much that surrounds the music, especially when it's your job to find and write about those things, that the music itself can become secondary. Instead of being a cool album, it's this piece of evidence in a never ending trial to prove someone you like is great or that new guy is wack. It can get very easy to forget the ultimate purpose of this music is to evoke emotion; to take someone's sleepless night and turn it into a revolution of the soul, making them 90-pound-girl-downing-a-bottle-of-vodka-on-prom-night level hysterical.
I think Black Milk said it best on "What it's Worth." "If I only had one fan rate me high, I could never feel underrated." I don't care how many stars this album gets, or how many album he sells, or how underrated he is because I'm beyond ratings and titles. I already have a deep, passionate connection with the album. It's now mine. Mine to cherish, mine to listen to over and over experiencing the same songs in a endless number of ways. If I want to cry when listening, FUCK YOU! I'm going to bawl like a baby. It's mine to throw on after a rough day. Mine to throw on after a great day. Nobody's experience can ever be the same as that and nobody can take that away from me.
So why do I love hip-hop?
Black Milk's If There's A Hell Below is why I love hip-hop
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]