“Drums!” Black Milk shouts before he tears into the first verse of “Keep Going.” His newfound cohorts, bassist Tim Shellabarger, singer and keyboard player AB, string arranger Sam Beaubien, and drummer Daru Jones, unleash a barrage of explosive riffage and outsized tribal percussion; Milk barks spitfire bars from the middle of the maelstrom, sounding slightly unhinged. He’s finally arrived.
Early releases like 2007’s Popular Demand introduced Black Milk as an upstart producer/rapper from the Dilla school of soul-infused, sample-based hip-hop production. 2008’s Tronic was a bit more adventurous, introducing synth-laden, robotic funk into the volatile amalgam. Album of the Year blows Milk’s sound to bits, replacing airtight programmed beats with raucous live drums, synths with strings and horns — boom bap with head-banging fury.
Album of the Year is hip-hop at heart, but its trappings are rockist. That is to say, rap has finally got an answer to the Roots. The band lends Milk’s productions a hulking, visceral heft that thrusts the music clean out of the speakers. The album’s every squelching synth and tumbling drum roll, every second, really, begs for maximum volume. Opener “365” sounds like it was played by a marching band for all its densely layered horns and fleet footwork. “Oh Girl” shoots for R&B but comes off more aggro, with AB’s arsenal of disembodied vocals and airy synths taking flight off Jones’ and Shellabarger’s bottom end. But as much as Album of the Year is bolstered by its big band largess, there’s more to it than chest-beating braggadocio.
The group of songs at the album’s midsection give it a stylistic breadth heretofore unheard in Black Milk’s work. He recounts a series of devastating losses and unfortunate events in “Distortion” while Jones kicks a restless shuffle accented by light synths, twinkling xylophones and chunky guitar squeals. Beaubien outfits “Black and Brown” with fluttering, forlorn strings that are almost as compelling as Black Milk’s and Detroit wordsmith Danny Brown’s blistering bars. “Round of Applause” sounds like Mulatu Astatke on steroids, with its powerful but limber percussion and busy horn section. The song spirals into a fierce instrumental section after the final verse, and Milk plays bandleader, gleefully shouting directions at the band. These songs sound like they were as much fun to record as they are to listen to.
Black Milk is a restless talent. Anytime he senses he’s gotten the hang of something, he moves on. When he mastered soul samples on Popular Demand, he banned them from Tronic. When he mastered synth-based production on Tronic, he began to look outside of rap for inspiration. In throwing the traditional hip-hop rulebook out the window, Black Milk and company have made an album that very nearly lives up to the claims its name seems to make. Regardless of how that title was derived — it is a reference to the 12 months of misfortune and death that befell Black Milk and his camp since the release of 2008’s Tronic, not some snarky proclamation of its own greatness — Album of the Year stands as one of 2010’s most innovative and adventurous albums of any stripe, incorporating traces of African jazz, latin music, psych, metal, and more in its relentless attack. It bangs hard from start to finish, and it’s guaranteed to send producers scrambling to rerecord their drums in its wake.