Album Review: If There's a Hell Below by Black Milk
Great, Based on 5 Critics
Exclaim - 90 Based on rating 9/10
On If There's A Hell Below, Detroit's Black Milk picks up where his 2013 album, No Poison No Paradise, left off. That album focused on narrative tales along with a moodier production aesthetic, adding another stylistic wrinkle to Black Milk's catalogue. The foreboding undercurrents remain on Black Milk's fifth album, with its Curtis Mayfield-alluding title, which is more of a first-person storytelling affair than No Poison No Paradise.
Black Milk is a paradoxical artist, one defined by both wild reinvention and stasis. To this point, every other Black Milk album is a corrective, somehow a refutation of the album that came before it. He keeps pressing reset and then playing the game the same: Tronic was his vaunted abandonment of vinyl fetishism for synthesizers; Album of the Year his embrace of live-band instrumentation; No Poison, No Paradise his nightmare-filled stab at creating a '70s soul epic.
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.
Six albums in and Detroit producer/MC Black Milk is a familiar enough fellow that loose, wandering albums like this can use his essence as an anchor. If the songs here weren't so developed and (mostly) learned, If There's a Hell Below could be passed off as outtakes and extras from his previous discography with Gospel samples, Detroit bangers, new wave joneses, and Milk's own clumsy, yet charming, lyrics all figuring into the career-encompassing mix. "Story and Her" comes off as early Black Milk where the worthy Dilla worship and sexual teenage come-ons aim right for the hips and/or panties, but "Quarter" with Pete Rock is the kind of grim, grown-folks business ("Let me show you something, how to get the green, now/I guess you old enough, you turnin' fourteen, now") that fueled his 2013 LP No Poison No Paradise.
Some of rap’s most genius as well as eclectic acts have hailed from Detroit, and producer/rapper Black Milk has been there to witness them all. This year, The D has continued to bless us with a new star-in-the-making in the form of Dej Loaf, as well as releases from long time Madlib collaborator, Guilty Simpson. If There’s A Hell Below, which the title is inspired by the infamous Curtis Mayfield song, is Black Milk’s attempt to continue this current trend in great Detroit music, as well as capitalize on the acclaim from his 2013 album No Poison, No Paradise.