Black Milk’s debut Popular Demand wasn’t a humble debut in a lyrical sense, but it presented a young producer and emcee without too much flash or high concept theatrics. A Detroit artist with a skill for beats from the J Dilla school of classic, crackly and soulful hip-hop, Black Milk, née Curtis Cross, made a strong first impression if not an entirely jaw-dropping one. But for his second album, Tronic, Cross has most certainly stepped up his game. The first clue that things are different is in the name, Tronic, which is echoed by the album cover depicting him standing in front of a wall of synthesizers. Indeed, this is most definitely a synth album; digital beats adorn a major chunk of tracks on the album, vocoder-treated vocals pop up now and again, keyboards throb and ambient waves paint an ultra-cool backdrop. It sounds incredible.
As an emcee, Black Milk can hold his own, rolling off some particularly choice lines in leadoff track “Long Story Short”: “hi-hat, snare drum, bassline, bass kicks/ recording to karaoke, stereo to tape deck/ having fun wit’ it, ain’t worried `bout gettin’ paid yet.” But Black Milk’s production is the real star of the show (for the most part), as he lays down beats stunning, broad and colorful, with sources ranging from Alan Parsons to Gary Numan. “Bounce” lives up to its name with a synth bassline sequenced with an old school electro bounce. Drum machines snap and fizzle in “Hold It Down,” while eerie buzzes and whirrs loop over a fierce beat in “Hell Yeah.” Cross throws a shout out to Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics as he declares, “this is how we chill from 2010 till,” over a buzzing bassline and lushly layered guitar and diaphanous synth in “Overdose.” And on “The Matrix,” Cross is joined by Sean Price, Pharoahe Monch (key line: “you couldn’t hang if you were Ving Rhames in Rosewood“) and DJ Premier in a track that incorporates, of course, more synth in a Middle Eastern sounding melody.
Tronic isn’t entirely an electronic-based album; there’s still a good handful of warm, soulful samples beneath its tracks, most notably on the funky, fiery “Give the Drummer Sum.” But the heavy emphasis on analog synth sounds here lends itself to a fresh and unique set of music that revealed a strong vision and Cross’ commitment to crafting intricate, dense hip-hop production. For sure, Popular Demand was good, but Tronic is great.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.