Black Milk: Politics, music, and evolution

The Detroit rapper explores new terrain with ‘Fever’

Music BlackMilk2 1 12
Photo credit: Delaney Teichler
FEVERISH: Detroit rapper Black Milk’s latest album arrived this year via Mass Appeal.

Curtis Eugene Cross, the Detroit rapper and producer better known as Black Milk, defies traditional hip-hop standards by embracing a more universally musical sound. His marriage of programmed samples and free-flowing jazz keyboards develops with each new album, illustrating a subtle, though startling sense of creative evolution.

“As an artist, you want to grow creatively, but you don’t want to put a ceiling on your audience,” says Black Milk. “You want to satisfy the day-one fans while also giving yourself room to grow.”

Since his 2005 debut Sound of the City (Music House), Black Milk’s albums have embodied an increasingly intellectual tone. The percussive textures and arrangements on albums such as 2007’s Popular Demand (Fat Beats) and 2008’s Tronic (Fat Beats) pledge allegiance to the rhythms and melodies of A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. A long-standing partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based jazz and R&B outfit Nat Turner has also added depth to Black Milk’s productions.

But Cross is no stranger to collaboration: In 2011, he released the “Brain” b/w “Royal Mega” 7-inch via Third Man Records. Both songs were birthed during a multiday studio session with fellow Detroit native and Third Man label owner Jack White. The pairing seems surprising at first, but the musical and vocal energy they capture on just two songs makes plain their creative synergy. 

“Both of us coming from the same city, we have a certain approach to various things,” says Black Milk. “It was easy. It was really easy.”

These kinds of collaborations have enabled Black Milk’s artistic growth, and piqued his interest in exploring new artistic terrain. In 2015, after years of touring as Black Milk’s nameless backing band, keyboardist Aaron “Ab” Abernathy, bass player Malik Hunter, and drummer Zebulun “Z” Horton, felt their project needed a name. Nat Turner gave a clear identity to the group and solidified its role in pairing with Black Milk. The following album, 2016’s The Rebellion Sessions (Computer Ugly), is a collection of mostly instrumental numbers that showcase Nat Turner’s prowess and full musical abilities. 

Black Milk’s latest album, Fever, released in 2018 via Mass Appeal, furthers their collaborative growth. Songs such as “Could It Be,” “2 Would Try” feat. Dwele, and “True Lies” give a lush makeover to Black Milk’s clever production style, while Nat Turner’s instrumental arrangements give Cross’ lyrics room to shine amid smooth and immediate jazz inflections.

As Cross’s lyrical and musical development have evolved alongside each other, his fan base has grown with each new iteration of his sound, emboldening Black Milk to tackle heavy subjects with confidence and grace. On one of Fever’s standout numbers, “Laugh Now Cry Later,” Black Milk rhymes: “From raps to movies, to black is beauty / Cop didn’t feel the same, felt he had to shoot me / Laugh now, cry later / All fun and games, screaming out gang gang / Until lil homie pull up, put a bullet through a brain.”

Politics and more impressionistic modes of expression share a subconscious union in Black Milk’s world, with his strongly voiced opinions coming across as a reflex rather than a calculated step.

“I don’t really consider myself a political person, but over the past few years, politics has become so much of pop culture,” he says while discussing the nature of his lyrics. “The internet puts everything in your face. How can you not speak on it? If there’s something going on that’s not right — whether it’s in your community or within your space, your environment — and you addressing it will bring light into it, then why not?”

Black Milk simply cannot sit still, and he has carved out a space for himself defined by an unabated desire to launch his means of self-expression into new territories.

Black Milk with Nat Turner, Nahncenz, and the Pheels. Hosted by Fort Knox with DJ Kerosene. $15 (adv.). 9 p.m. Sat., July 28. Aisle 5, 1123 Euclid Ave. N.E. www.aisle5atl.com.

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