The producer-to-emcee transition is a precarious one in hip-hop. Too many are unsatisfied with accolades behind the mixing boards, and try their hand with the microphone to less-than-stellar results. For every artist that bucks the trend, there's 10 more that release boring, uninspired albums.
So, after listening to Black Milk's Tronic, it would be in your best interest to pass on the next 10 albums released by a producer-turned-emcee.
Black Milk is the foremost disciple of the late J. Dilla, an unquestionable maestro whose work has backdropped everyone from Common to Kanye, from Mos Def to A Tribe Called Quest. Milk, Detroit brethren to Dilla, is doing his best to fill those enormous shoes in both his producing and his rapping. Both are on display on Tronic, Milk's third solo effort.
Milk does the Motor City proud right from the get-go: "Long Story Short," as he flows over the infectious mix of drums and horns while telling the world what hip-hop has done to his life: "I'm thinkin' how could we fail? Seen a whole 'nother level of the game out on tour with D12 / Fans wilin' out hands risin' in The Plow, Proof keeps stage divin' in the crowd / I can do this I can get used to it." The feel-good vibe resonates all over the album, with tracks like the bass string-pluck-driven "Bounce," and even when Milk's lyricism doesn't impress the production is there to fill the gap.
It's no knock on Black Milk--nobody that spends the majority of their time crafting beats is going to be as adept on the microphone as a full-time emcee, but it's a testament to his skill and charisma that the issue rarely pops up. And when it does, there's somebody there to pick up the slack.
Detroit's lyrical messiah, Royce Da 5'9" guests on "Losing Out," and though it's apparent who's outshining who, the track works because Royce's delivery is positively captivating. Linking punchlines and metaphors with the greatest of ease, he cuts through the beat with quips like "I'm puttin' money on heads like I'm paying their barbers." A little later on, Milk invites Pharoahe Monche and Sean Price to flow with him on a dense, Arabian-influenced beat from DJ Premier. "The Matrix" is an exercise in precision; each of the three emcees puts his own stamp on the track thanks to air-tight delivery and an authoritative demeanor. Black Milk just possesses that rare ability to coalesce in a song with any other rapper and hold up tracks all on his own.
"Overdose" is Black Milk at his finest--an unmitigated onslaught of clever bars over swirling, mesmerizing production. The sensory explosion is just the kind of song needed to anchor the album, and just the kind of song that makes it more than apparent that Milk will be around for a long time to come.
Through the failing auto industry, a decline in population, its record number of house foreclosures and a rapid increase in crime, Detroit is experiencing a renaissance. A hip-hop renaissance. Though J Dilla has unfortunately passed, talented individuals like Royce, Guilty Simpson, Fat Ray and Black Milk are putting Detroit back on the map and in a big, big way.