Black Milk – If There’s A Hell Below – The STiXXclusive Review

Black Milk is one of the most under-appreciated artists out there that has been consistently making good music for damn near a decade. With the success of his previous album No Poison, No Paradise, I was sure that the limelight would have grown for him as it looked like his popularity would ascend, given that he garnered positive reviews. It was surprising to me that he was going to drop an album a year later, because NPNP is still fresh to the ears, but I definitely wasn’t going to argue about receiving more music which would be a continuation, not to be confused with a sequel. The imagination that Black brings to his music, besides the production & lyricism, heightens the creative level that he brings to the table and I think that goes unrecognized, because he’s not making that ‘turn-up’ music that will gravitate to a younger crowd, but yet rather hits the older that has that overall appreciation for music in general. The continuation of Sonny’s story (loosely based on Black’s life) goes from bad to worse as hell on Earth consumes him as more struggles come about to steer his life in the wrong direction. The concept of Hell on Earth is one that a lot of people believe in, and is commonly mentioned in music. My favourite song about the idea is Heaven & Hell by Raekwon

 

“What do you believe in, heaven or hell
You don’t believe in heaven cause we’re living in hell
You don’t believe in heaven cause we’re living in hell
So it’s your life”

If There's a Hell Below

 

Everyday Was starts off with a chant that seems spiritual, but as the beat kicks in and the dark and tormented tales of the unfortunate come up, including family struggles with addiction and ultimately just living in Detroit, it develops into a hard-knocking track with substance.

 

“It’s that overdose daily
No if, ands, buts or maybes
Have you addicted like that shit my auntie smoked in the 80s
Auntie Tricia, what up, I see you still live and maintain raw
So I rep it, spit raw, spit hard as the veins in your arms”

 

The emphasis that Black put on NPNP was that he wanted to create music that would be everlasting, dark, but memorable. He’s setting to continue that trend just one track in. There were a lot of things that made it personally relatable to my life, especially when he talked about not wanting to be a system worker, and being raised around those who took to selling drugs & violence to create a lifestyle.

 

Didn’t want to work around the clock from 9-5
Just to clock in and clock out
Some niggas had packed things and sold it to crack fiends
Some niggas had dope wrote in their notepad but couldn’t turn it to rap dreams
But I did what I had to
Had to stash that cash up under that mattress

 

There’s a feeling that this album would be more focused on Black’s life, rather than that of Sonny’s on the previous album. It hits a topic that will relate to a lot of people in terms of making it out of something that’s hell-ish to being someone that doesn’t have to constantly walk through the fires of life.

 

What It’s Worth is one of my favourite tracks of Black’s because it touches to Black’s subconscious about being an artist that asks himself is it worth to be doing what he’s doing, and I know that a lot of people do the same when they’re in a position of creativity that’s open for the public. It’s a lot of pressure not only to satisfy the fans, but also to be true to yourself. What a lot of people don’t understand is that there are other inside factors that put that added pressure into the position that they’re in, and Black put that into perspective very well.


Look at fam realize what I’m working towards
Keep they pockets filled with stacks
Gotta keep food up in they fridge
Keep my moms up out of that trap
Keep my bro up out of that pen
Never had a land in hand, always had to play my part
Play it smart
Artist about his craft
But sometimes survival is bigger than art

There are a lot of people constantly scrutinizing your work, and in the modern day age of Best-of & Top 10 lists, plus end of the year rankings, everyone has an opinion and that plays a part in how an artist approaches their work (at least the weak minded). Because Black has been at it for 10 years, being underrated, underappreciated, and overlooked isn’t a factor for him anymore. He’s just making music, and thus making a living while at it. That’s what it’s worth for him – to keep doing what he’s doing, and that’s the focus a lot of artists don’t have. They can’t strap on the blinders and have tunnel vision throughout their progression.

 

What I liked about this album was the fact that there were solid features from some pretty impressive names, specifically Blu & Pete Rock on Leave the Bones Behind & Quarter Water, respectively. Blu is one of those rappers that has floated under the radar practically his entire career although he’s had one of the most impressive catalogues for a rapper with Below The Heavens being one of the best Hip Hop albums to come out in the past decade. He lays down a strong verse while Black goes into scary detail about life in Detroit, similarly like Perfected on Puritan Ave from NPNP.

 

“Where the blood get spilled, city bruhs get killed

            Kids dodging bullets on they Big Wheels”

 

I like that the title of the track plays into having skeletons in the closet but leaving them behind to move forward, but in a way, they’ll always follow you. The gang culture plus the broken systemic structure of the city to set you up to fail, it’s an area of depression that truly doesn’t make it easy to make it out of, and that’s the reality of millions of people, and the reason why Rappers are the curators of what that reality is like. It’s a dark and harsh truth that the world doesn’t want to see – hence why they keep skeletons in the closet. Blu adds an aura of affluence when it comes to his raps because his flow seems to be the right fit for the type of production that Black Milk draws up (listen to production on No York and tell me something different). It’s the stories of the rough environments and the beginnings of what would be their rap lives, but the honest raps that Blu strings together to compliment Black along with the simple production around it (RZA-ish, if I may say to an extent) make it one of the better tracks on the album.

Pete Rock is a legend, there’s no doubt about that in a shred of my mind that’s full of whatever brains are filled with. For starters, I liked the jazzy production behind Quarter Water as Black continued to delve into the story of his life as the album but what’s also the story of most when he states that “all we wanted was a piece of the pie.” Where Black Milk shined, I didn’t feel Pete Rock’s verse a lot. I mean it was just there, and maybe the beat wasn’t on the right groove with him, but I could have done without it, because it just felt like an awkward placement. That doesn’t negate the fact that Pete Rock is on a track with Black, it just wasn’t that impactful as a feature. Production overall was solid, as the instrumental carried out in typical Black Milk fashion, which has been his stamp.

 

Much like the instrumental interlude Sonny Jr. on NPNP, Hell Below serves as that jazz ensemble percussion jam session that takes a break from the lyrical and transitions into the latter half of the album in a very groovy fashion, which is the only thing necessary. Given that the vibe has been consistent throughout, it was fascinating to anticipate what was going to come next. I wish they played stuff like this in elevators. I’d probably never leave – unless I happened to be stuck, and then we’d have a problem. This would at least be comfort music. I like how the ending of Hell Below segued seamlessly into Detroit’s New Dance Show, and with this song, everyone that I’ve played it for instantly gets into a groove as soon as the beat drops. Mind you, these people probably have a more open-minded frame of min when it comes to listening to different genres, but I don’t see how that’s the matter. The House influence behind the track is wicked; so much in fact that I didn’t even pay attention to the lyrics through the first listens because I was too busy jigging. The story is more of the same with the come up and struggle of growing up (Detroit really doesn’t sound like a great place to grow up in, no matter who’s rapping it).

 

“Niggas ain’t thinking around here
You get dropped at the drop of a dime or a blink ’round here
In the club don’t spill your drink ’round here
On a niggas sneaks, niggas don’t think ’round here
Pop it up, pop the trunk, pop the..
Out here no fear no way
Back to the moral of the story, okay
Back in the place where you might fall apart
It’s the beauty and the ugly of it all”

 

It’s not uncommon that a meaningful message or potent lyrics are wrapped around a popped up beat to engage the listener, but this is a classic example of that as you get the bounce, but yet the influx of a negative environment that encases the words to great a good showing of contrast.

 

Story & Her is my favourite song. Don’t ask me why, it just is. I said don’t ask me, because I’m going to tell you anyways. The story of having a crush on a girl from back in the day isn’t new, and unless your circle is pretty small or the city is closely wound to the point where you’ll run into anybody, it’s not often that you see them years later, but in Black’s case this was so. After waiting years to get his chance to bed her, he does. It’s a rewarding feeling like beating the final boss of a childhood video game that took you forever to overcome – okay maybe not the same thing, but a similar feeling. Then the song takes an interesting twist, and a reason why it’s one of my favourite songs is because of the beat switch. It isn’t anything grandeur or eye-popping, but it’s the subtly of it coming in that completely shifts the mood from a positive to a negative light. From confusion to retracing the steps of what happened, to a ‘lethal’ discovery, it’s the worst nightmare but has been brought out in a way that was vibrant and bouncy at the same time. Definitely had the most replays on the album for me.

 

The rock emphasis that is brought about on All Mighty isn’t anything new that Black has introduced, but it re-emphasizes his open-minded artistry that enables him to branch outside of the box to grip attention, then as the beat flips to a more ‘traditional’ Hip Hop beat, the story also pertains to how he started making beats and eventually becoming a rapper as well. Critics, and music publications tend to overlook or underrate Black for the artist he is, but sticking true to his craft and his sound is what’s been working for him, so that’s what his vision’s been since. There’s a good balance of lyrical and instrumental on the album, which does feel like a jazz album in a sense because there are breaks to allow tracks to breathe, and production wise, there are a lot more elements compared to the previous album, so it’s great to hear growth and the constant push to be better in Black’s case.

A couple of my favourite lines on the album came from Scum

 

“While I had pops, most grew up without one
All they had was drugs, where the street wars met
Walkin’ out everyday, with the Devil on yo doorstep
Sittin’ on your porch in the post
This the city limit, where you see they have no remorse at”

 

It’s unfortunate that, not only in Hip Hop, but in life it’s all too common for kids to be raised without fathers, or at least fathers that aren’t around them all the time to show them the ropes and develop necessary traits in order to groom them as decent adults in the future. In Hip Hop it’s all too common to hear the story of men and women not having fathers growing up, so when there are artists who do mention that they had one around, it’s a bit of an eye opener, and that sucks quite frankly. When you don’t have a figure to look up to, many single parent kids (such as myself and others I was raised around) take to other outlets and people that aren’t necessary positive, to help nurture them and sometimes it’s for the better, but more often than not, it doesn’t bode well. You get the kids in the street selling drugs and chasing street dreams which often lead to nowhere good, so this line hit me in particular because I understand that way of thinking. I like that each member of Random Axe (Sean Price & Guilty Simpson being the others) had their own beat to spit over, as opposed to having just one for all three because it may not have situated well with their styles.

 

Gold Piece was one of the first songs that came out before the album debuted and it was one that I liked right off the bat because the beat hit hard to go with the gritty descriptions of the come up, which was the consistent topic across the album. It was surprising for Bun B to make an appearance as the ‘Old head’ who was giving the words of the wise to Black and it was dope exchange over a wicked beat that I definitely appreciated. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t at least a 3rd verse to follow after Bun’s, but I still enjoyed the beat as it went out, and a nice touch was added at the end as a recognizable beat from NPNP. Grey for Summer rounded up the story of Detroit with what would appear to be a bittersweet ending with what a lot of people could connect with in almost any urban environment, or ‘hood’ to be more politically correct. The cycle of the everyday activities is what was embraced until there’s a point where you have to step away from that to make something of yourself. But also it’s about not forgetting about those humble beginnings to remember just why you do what you do.

 

Ending off the album with Up & Out, it adds to the point of getting out of that environment and doing something with yourself. A quote from Winston Churchill goes: “if you’re going through hell, keep going” and that’s definitely the case because without the poison, there’s no paradise and given that he came out of what was already hell on Earth, there’s nothing more to it but to enjoy the life he has now, since the turmoil has been put behind him, but the heat of said ‘Hell’ burns with him internally. A lot of people don’t know about what exactly goes on in the inner city, and by all means if you don’t, be grateful – it’s not somewhere that’s meant to be visited. For anyone who has had to experience the turmoil of living in project or government housing, it basically is like a hell on Earth, and I like that I was able to connect with this album given that the stories that Black shared were similar to that of my own or at least those I knew growing up. There are a lot of things wrong with the world for people to go out of their way and say that Hell is already on Earth, but at the same time, people have made their ways out of struggle to become better of themselves, and Black is just one example out of many to establish that. Sonically, you’re not going to hear any of this stuff on the radio or on popular blogs, but it’s definitely worth the time to listen to because it’s sound all around. But I’ll leave that you to decide for yourself. This is my opinion, this is my review

 

That’s My Word & It STiXX

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