Black Milk performs Sept. 29 at C2SV Music Festival. Photo by Jonathan Stafford.
“I didn’t really set out to make a concept album,” says producer and emcee Curtis Cross, better known as Black Milk, about his upcoming release No Poison No Paradise. “That wasn’t my original plan, but the first four or five records I made felt like they were all telling a story.”
Cross, previews some of the songs at Pagoda Lounge as part of the C2SV Music Festival on September 29. The band Nat Turner will join him, offering him the freedom to let his studio tracks breathe a bit more than he could with just a DJ.
The samples on album cuts “Sunday’s Best” and “Monday’s Worst,” two of Poison’s standout tracks, set the tone for where he took the album. The result is an interesting mix of past and present from one of the most notable names to emerge from the Detroit hip-hop scene since the death of the legendary J Dilla.
Cross agrees that Poison may be his darkest release to date. “My music in the past—Popular Demand and Tronic—was more so on the feel-good side of things,” he says. “With this one, I made more of a conscious effort to talk about specific things and have specific details in the music.”
“Monday’s Worst,” his best executed lyrical outing to date, shows just how well that specificity paid off. The song depicts a robbery from two perspectives. In the first verse, the stick-up kid explains his desperate situation: “It’s funny how those hunger pangs to your rib can turn a decent kid to doing a bid over stick-ups,” raps the shooter-to-be. With the second verse, the focus shifts to the victim, who recounts his night before his untimely end. As his story tunes out, the ironic hook fades back in, singing “It’s never too late to get your values straight.”
It’s been three years since 2010’s Album of the Year, but 2013 sees Cross expanding in a number of ways. He can now add label exec to his resume—No Poison No Paradise is being released on his recently launched imprint, Computer Ugly.
“I want to start taking more of an executive role for future projects,” he says. With six solo albums and numerous collaborations to his name, including a seven-inch with Jack White and 2008’s CalTroit project with California rapper Bishop Lamont, his experience now offers him the chance to release successful projects in his own vision.
Computer Ugly surprisingly rose out of a simple exchange. As he recalls, the label idea came from a casual collaboration with illustrator Upendo “Pen” Taylor. Cross needed some logo work done, and after he sent along instrumentals he had no plans on releasing, he found out the music began to inspire Taylor’s illustrative work. The mutual admiration turned into a full collaboration, resulting in Synth or Soul, released this past May. An instrumental album, it’s a project where “the music is shaped by the visual art and the visual art is shaped by the music.”
Though Poison finds Black covering bleaker themes, it still sounds familiar because it maintains a patchwork of sonic elements fans of his past work will certainly recognize. It’s the latest example of his ability to progress as an artist without completely abandoning his signature sound. The album has the same rhythmic bounce and soulful samples that have been Black’s hallmark stretching back to 2005’s Sound of the City. It’s a mighty fine line to follow, but it’s a feat he manages on his latest.
“There’s always going to be a certain soulfulness and a certain funk with the music because that’s just the type of music I like,” Cross says. “ I think as long as I keep those two elements in my formula, people will always be able to say ‘even though he’s going left, he’s still capturing that feeling we liked when we first heard him.’”