Fear is not a word in Black Milk’s vocabulary. Well into his second decade in music and seven albums deep, the Detroit emcee continues to push the boundaries of Hip-Hop expression with FEVER, a searing blend of funk, rock, electronic and soul topped by poignant rap lyrics on social media addiction, race relations, and love. It’s a project that’s distinctly Black Milk, but also in contrast to his previous work.
Black Milk and his mighty backing band Nat Turner (D’Angelo, Adele, Justin Bieber) embark on the third stop of the international FEVER Tourthis Saturday at Atlanta’s Aisle 5. I sat down with him to discuss the journey of his musical expression and the “true lies” Hip-Hop needs to break with.
With FEVER, the sound has a very other-worldly feel, especially on songs like “Eve” and the second beat on “Drown.” Almost like a fevered dream or delirium. When you were putting this album together, what sounds were you focused on experimenting with?
I knew I wanted it to be musical. When I produce I always like to incorporate live musicians and instrumentation. I knew there had to be a certain level of musicality to it. And I definitely wanted it to be more a melodic and vibes type of album.
This album really didn’t have any super aggressive Hip-Hop songs like my previous albums. I wanted the mood to be laid back and feel-good.
When you make an album like FEVER, how does your lyrical approach and flow have to change?
Production always guides where I go lyrically. Most of the time I start with the beat first. It’ll force me to write and flow to it in a certain way.
It might have been one or two tracks (on FEVER) where the songwriting came first from a conversation I had or something I’ve seen.
“Laugh Now, Cry Later” stood out to me. It reminded me a quote I heard that said “Life is a balancing act between hope and despair.” You have the dichotomy in all the striking images you rapped about. So when you’re doing these songs with all this heavy social content, do you make a conscious effort to reel it in and make sure the album’s content doesn’t lean too heavily in one direction?
I’m definitely conscious of that and how people will digest it. This is one of those albums where I wanted to speak more on what’s going on in this era. A couple of my previous albums were coming from a personal place and what I experienced. I wanted FEVER to not come off preachy or dark and depressed. I made sure to strike a balance in the music and lyrics where I’m talking about something relevant but not bringing people down.
That’s why you hear that contrast with the production – the lyrics are heavy but the production is melodic and at times, feels good.
“Laugh Now, Cry Later” was one of the few songs that stems from a personal conversation before I even did the track. One of my friends and I were talking about social media. Do people realize the emotional rollercoaster they’re going on daily? You’re literally going up and down on the timeline all day. It makes you angry, upset, then a minute later you’re laughing at something. I don’t think people really notice that. It’s interesting to think how that will affect us in the future.
On “True Lies,” you spoke on keeping yourself “pure.” You spoke on breaking tradition regarding religion. With Hip-Hop culture, what “true lies” do you think we’ve been taught that we need to break to continue pushing the culture forward?
That’s a good one. You have the purists that believe Hip-Hop music should sound one way. Then you have people in the middle that love the Golden Era but also support the new era.
When any young black kid does music, we automatically throw him under Hip-Hop. Everything doesn’t have to be categorized as Hip-Hop. Black people are a diverse bunch with a lot of different sounds and approaches.
That’s where we get friction – trying to make everything Hip-Hop just because it’s a young black person doing music. Unless it’s some straight-up R&B singing they’re gonna call it Hip-Hop. A lot of what the new generation does may be rooted in Hip-Hop, but it’s nothing wrong with having new categories.
That’s the biggest lie, that everything must be called Hip-Hop.
I’d rather take a risk and fail than having the fear of potentially doing something great.
I wanted to build with you on this concept I have called “the fear of growth.” I’ll use Nas as an example. When you do diverse albums like he has, you’re going to get fans that gravitate to a particular project and want you to always stay in that lane. He has his fans who want him to keep making Illmatic, you have others that jumped on during It Was Written, or even later with Stillmatic.
So as someone who likes to experiment, does it weigh on your creative process to know you have fans that are waiting of another Tronic or Album of the Year and not where your sound is progressing to?
Yes and I think that’s true for any artist that’s had a piece of work that’s celebrated. You compete with yourself to make something just like it or greater.
I used to think about that stuff a lot. But at this point man, I’m in a place where I can do what I wanna do. Long as you’re being honest to the music people will feel you as an artist.
The problem comes when your change isn’t from a natural progression. You’re doing it for money, trying to keep up with trends, mimicking other rappers – you just can’t do that. It feels forced.
When I change, I’m experimenting with something new or that I love. That’s why I’ve been able to pull a lot of fans with me from the beginning. I know I’ve probably lost some on the way [laughs]. My sound is totally different from my first few albums. But that’s cool, too. You want to grow. I’d rather take a risk and fail than having the fear of potentially doing something great.
You ended the album with a very poignant vocal that states “Everyone is a potential victim.” Did you put that as a reminder to people to not get too comfortable in any aspect of life?
Yeah, to a degree. Remember, this album is my take on what we’re living through right now, whether it’s social media, religion, police in urban cities, appropriation or race. I felt that vocal clip would be perfect to put at the end to represent we’re all human and looking for peace of mind and happiness. Everything that is magnified and amplified in front of us isn’t real. The system and the powers that be at any moment can control how things are moving.
I’ve always wondered this — is there enough material left over to release another Random Axe album?
No man, I wish it was. The last song we did is actually the one we recorded (“Scum“) for my solo album If There’s a Hell Below. That was supposed to be the song to let people know we were about to get back into the studio. The follow-up was going to be the next project I focused on. Unfortunately P (Sean Price) passed and we didn’t get around to doing any new music.
Any other collaboration albums on the table after the FEVER tour?
That’s the first thing on the agenda. I got some stuff on the table. Can’t shout out any names until the ink dries on that stuff. I’m hoping to drop some new stuff either by the end of this year or top of 2019.
So for those who are thinking about attending Atlanta show this weekend or have never seen you live before, what can they expect that’s different from a standard Hip-Hop show?
Ah man, you can expect a lot of energy and great musicianship with my band Nat Turner. They add extra layers and dynamics to the show. It’s totally different from the studio recordings. You’ll get a show rooted in Hip-Hop but we’ll take some different turns to jazz, soul, rock, electronic – a little bit of everything. Completely raw.