Hip-hop producer and recording artist Curtis Cross (a.k.a. Black Milk) cannot be contained. There are so many ideas cascading from his third solo album that it’s difficult to keep pace with the clattering drum samples, steely electronica and wildly manipulated vocals, all just tiny facets of the Black Milk universe. By the time you hit track four, the infernally catchy “Without U,” it’s time to return to the beginning of the record to see what your brain didn’t process during the first three songs.
Opening cut “Long Story Short” is a perfect example of Cross’s ability to match cutthroat beats with a few killer samples and a cocksure vocal delivery. A huge string sample dominates throughout, and is matched by some slowed-down trumpet and a contemplative piano intro and outro. It’s testament to Cross’s editing abilities that the song appears to have a little bit of everything but never feels cluttered in its execution.
Comparisons between Black Milk and lauded names such as Outkast, J. Dillla and New Kingdom have already been drawn, and much of Tronic does nothing to dispel those analogies. It’s not that Cross has necessarily tried to emulate Aquemini or Donuts, it’s more that he shares a similar breadth of vision. So just as Outkast will namecheck Photek as an influence, Cross also demonstrates his knowledge of electronic music with “Bounce,” which contains a metallic backbone that sounds like it was built from a Kraftwerk offcut.
At times there’s an old soul/R&B vibe to Tronic. Just witness the Hammond organ jabs on “Give the Drummer Sum,” which is matched by a stone cold drum sample that wouldn’t sound out of place on an old Meters record. The song ends with stabs of brass that would do Maceo Parker proud, but by mixing in some helium-ized vocals and giving the track a sparse feel, Cross manages to steer this oddball mélange into something that sounds like no one other than Black Milk.
Often the album alternates between songs that sound like they could be huge radio hits (the summery “Without U,” the uplifting “Try”) and others that indulge Cross’s impulse to toy with his sound (the processed Space Invader beats of “Hold It Down,” the woozy electronica of “Tronic Summer”). As with other Black Milk records, the drum patterns are unrestrained and shoved forward in the mix, and Cross only gets better at weaving his vocals into the finished product.
It’s often difficult to tell where Black Milk sounds are sourced from, and it’s an aspect of the album that makes for beguiling repeat listens. What is that noise that runs through “Overdose,” amid the scratching and the low-end bass synth? Why does the musical backing of “Reppin for You” sound like it was recorded about 800 feet below sea level? These questions put Cross in the company of other wayward artists (Brian Wilson, Richard D. James, Kevin Shields) who delight in welding their avant-garde impulses to contemporary pop structure. Tronic isn’t quite hip-hop’s Smile, but Black Milk is certainly open to pushing similar boundaries of possibility.