Contrast is a powerful creative tool, reflected in Black Milk’s very name and impeccably utilized on his latest studio album, FEVER. Emotionally raw, yet melodically polished, the well-balanced LP drops this Friday, February 23 on Mass Appeal/Computer Ugly—and could easily be a case study on the artistic principle.
Musically, it is a bit of a departure from the renowned Detroit producer and MC’s last two solo projects, which were much more somber and menacing in tone. An organically soulful cocktail of jazz fusion and funk-infused rhythms, with a twist of electronic textures for good measure, FEVER is one of the artist’s most fluid bodies of work. Lyrically, the project showcases some dismal, sharp and thought-provoking commentary about modern society and the current sociopolitical climate in America—touching on everything from institutionalized education and organized religion (“True Lies”) to “fake woke” misogynists and the emotional effects of social media addiction (“Laugh Now Cry Later”), as well as capitalism’s taxing toll on human relationships (“Foe Friend”) and much more. The result is a complex listening experience that is paradoxically hard to swallow, but somehow still manages to go down smooth.
Hip hop is full of rapping beat makers and self-producing MCs, but few who are equally as talented on both the MPC and the mic. Even fewer continue to push the envelope in both disciplines throughout their careers, and fewer still have as much to say as Black Milk. FEVER is indicative of his growth, both as a producer and songwriter—and as a man. UGHH spoke to the multitalented artist about how the energy on FEVER developed, his ever-evolving creative process, social media-induced anxiety and the Random Axe sequel that would have been, were it not for the untimely passing of group mate Sean Price.
You’re good at crafting a unique sound for every project, whether you go more soulful, electronic, jazzy or wherever with it. What was the vibe you were going for with FEVER?
It was one of the first times where I kinda wanted to do a vibe that was I guess a little more laid back, a little more calmer—more vibe-y, I should say, than my previous projects… That was just the natural wave I was on, at the time, when creating the album. Wasn’t any particular reason. That’s kinda what I was trying to go for sonically. In terms of the topic, I named the album FEVER [to represent] the temperature being kind of high, in the climate that we’re in—in the world and the country, with all the craziness that’s going on… Everybody’s emotions [are] on edge. It seems like most people, no matter what side of the fence you’re on (in terms of politics), have anger [about] what’s going on.
I noticed, when I was listening to it, that sonically it’s a little more… I don’t know if the word would be upbeat, or just real smooth… I was wondering what kinda head space you were in when you were creating FEVER, and has it changed at all since you dropped If There’s a Hell Below?
I think with every album, especially with a person like me that drops albums every two or three years, it’s more so just always a reflection of where I’m at personally, at that time. It’s the same with this new album. It’s just kind of reflective of where I’m at in the world I’m living in at this moment—’cause this world is different than the world we was living in, or the world I was living in, three years ago… This album was kinda made with the new president [and] the new government that we have [in mind], and … [with] all of the issues that’s going on right now in the world, so that’s why the vibe of the album is kinda like up and down sometimes.
One of the things that struck me was the juxtaposition of the concepts and the sounds, ’cause you’re dropping real heavy bars over … ethereal kind of beats.
Yeah, a little more feel-good type… [Laughs].
Yeah. Was that by design, or did it just kind of naturally happen that way?
Yeah, I can say honestly man, I started the album before a lot of these issues and this new presidency kinda came about. I started the album before everything happened, a little over a year ago, so when I originally went into it, yeah, it was kinda … like, “I’ma make a feel-good album.” You know what I’m sayin’? “I’m gonna make something with feel-good vibes on it, ’cause I feel like my last two—Hell Below and No Poison—those were more dark albums. I’ma change lanes a little bit and do something with a little more feel-good vibes into it.” Like I said, the weight of the world pushed me into a whole other space. I kinda was forced to still talk about some things that might have a darker tone to it, so that’s why you kinda get a mixture of some of those good vibes with some of those darker vibes—it’s just ’cause that was my intention, originally, but the world just didn’t allow me to stay on that [laughs].
Listening to “Laugh Now Cry Later” feels just like scrolling through my timeline on social media, and seeing this and that. You really capture that weird combination of depression, anxiety and anger at the state of the world, mixed the moments of humor and entertainment—and it’s like flipping through emotions like TV channels. Even sonically, with that frenetic, almost digital sounding bass line and the effect on the vocal sample, you was really doing some word paintin’ there. Were you trying to create that effect, where the beat mimics the concept?
Yeah, that particular song started with the beat—and the actual song concept, the lyrics, kinda came from a conversation I was having with one of my friends about that particular subject… Man, do people really realize the kinda emotional roller coaster that they’re on when they’re scrolling through social media, [or] just being online in general, on a daily basis? … I don’t really know if people really are aware of how they’ll be furious about one topic one minute, and then just see a meme or something about that same topic that will change their entire emotion five minutes later, you know what I’m sayin’? … That’s where the concept for the lyrics came from.
When I first peeped “Laugh Now Cry Later,” I couldn’t help but think of that Guilty Simpson line from “Chewbacca” off the Random Axe project. Was that at all intentional? Was there any behind the scenes connection or inspiration there?
[Laughs]. Yeah, definitely! After I had the conversation with my guy about what we was talking about (that gave me the idea for the song), I don’t know why that phrase “laugh now, cry later” came to my head. Of course we all know it’s a popular phrase—it’s been around—but when I thought of the phrase, I naturally thought of Guilty because, on the flip side, that was my favorite bar of the entire Random Axe album. That’s like one of my favorite Guilty Simpson lines ever. “I’ll carve a smile right next to your frown, like laugh now, cry later.” I love that line, so I naturally thought of that line when I thought of the title… [Laughs]. Guilty definitely was in mind when I put the record together.
It makes sense, too, ’cause the randomness of scrolling through the timeline and seeing all the different stuff kinda goes in line with the idea behind Random Axe, I guess.
[Laughs]. You’re right. Exactly!
Speaking of which, I heard a rumor that Random Axe was working on a second album before P’s passing. Was there any truth to that?
Yeah, definitely. We definitely was on our way to jump into that. That’s why I had the Random Axe feature on my last album, If There’s a Hell Below. I can’t think of the song title right now, off top, but it was the song with Random Axe on my last album… That was supposed to be the planted seed and the spark to get everybody excited for the Random Axe project, ’cause that was literally the next project that I was gon’ work on after Hell Below dropped—but unfortunately P passed, so we ain’t get a chance to get that project done.
The song was “Scum,” I think.
Yeah, “Scum!” Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Did you guys record any material for that?
Nah, that record was the newest record that we had recorded. We didn’t get a chance to record anything after that, after Hell Below. That’s pretty much the last official Random Axe song that’s ever been recorded. I know P had a lot of verses that he recorded, but it didn’t feel right just trying to put something together and it not being the actual process with all three of us in the room. I didn’t wanna make it low budget like that, just for the sake of having another project.
You’ve dropped some [other] classic collaborative albums, [too]. Any thought to who else you’d wanna link with for a full project, in the future?
Not really anybody in particular, but I definitely wanna do more collaborations. The last couple of months, I’ve been getting in the studio with a few different artists and producing just records and songs. Hopefully those records will come out.
Anyone you can name?
I want to, but you know how that goes… [Laughs].
You know I had to ask, though [laughs].
Of course! I been gettin’ in the studio with names people are familiar with—a couple of newer artists that’s on the up-and-coming that have pretty good followings, right now—so hopefully some of them records come out. Right now, that’s kinda been my thing (besides doing my own solo stuff), is trying to make more of an effort—’cause I didn’t make too much of an effort in the past—to do more collaboration work with different artists.
Mike [King], the owner of UGHH, he was wondering why you and Blu haven’t dropped a “Black & Blu” project.
[Laughs]. I know, man. It’d seem like the obvious. Me and Blu actually talked about that a while ago, a long time [ago], but it’s just one of them things where we just never got a around to it. The idea was always there… Me and Blu got the chance to work on a few records together, but never got the chance to do a full LP.
[Back to If There’s A Hell Below], on “What It’s Worth” you said you “never was one to go to another one just to feel validated” in regards to “workin’ with the latest out.” … Is that why you chose not to feature any other MCs on [FEVER]?
Not necessarily, man. When I went into the album, I really didn’t have any features in mind—and by the time I got around toward the end of the process of the album, I kinda noticed that, “Damn, I didn’t really put any features, especially rap features, on the album.” But I was pretty much done, and I feel like I got my message and point across … without having to have any features disrupt that, so I was like, “I’ll shoot for that on the next album, and be more conscious about it.” It wasn’t on my mind at the time, actually. I was just writing all of the lyrics and not even thinking about features. I didn’t really realize it until I was done at the end, like, “Damn, I didn’t even really put no features on this joint.” [Laughs].
Well, you do have some dope musicians involved—like Chris “Daddy” Dave and Daru Jones on drums. How’d you link with them?
I just started kickin’ it with Chris recently, bein’ out here [in L.A.]—bein’ in similar circles. Me being a fan of him as a musician, and [him being] a fan of me as an artist, we’ve been gettin’ in the studio lately, just working. It was just one of those things where I had him come through and play on some stuff—and then with Daru, I’ve just known Daru for a long ass time, man. You know, he played on my album Album of the Year, which was back in 2010, so it was good for me and Daru to link back up for the first time in like eight years… I [also] had one guitarist playing all the guitar parts you hear on the album, a young up-and-coming musician named Sasha [Kashperko] from Detroit. All of the [keyboard] parts you hear is this cat named Ian Finkelstein, another young, really dope keyboard player out of Detroit. Those two were kinda like the glue for the entire album. There was me, of course, doing what I do with production, and having Ian and Sasha do what they do, as musicians … adding that additional musical element on top. I gotta really give it up to those guys.
I was watching that video you posted—the “FEVER Studio Session” joint—and I was wondering about your process. I’m sure it differs a little from track to track and all that, but a lot of the video was you kind of directing those musicians involved—and I wanted to know, are y’all essentially creating your own samples to chop up?
For the most part, with me, my process always still—from the beginning all the way to this day, I should say—is always built from records… Just digging. Diggin’ for dope records, and dope music and dope artists (stuff that’s untapped). A lot of the times, I either go chop it up myself in the drum machine—make a beat out of it and maybe have some musicians [play] on top of it—or there’s other times where I might just hear something and I might just have the band totally cover it, you know what I’m sayin’? Cover what I’m hearing or what I like—a melody that I might have caught on the record—and be like, “Yo man, listen, let’s do something like this. Let’s build on this, right here.” I might either leave what they did alone, or I might even take what they done and chop it up and make something crazy. Yeah, it could vary… There’s tracks on the album, for example a track like “True Lies,” which [are] entirely live. I didn’t take anything on there [and chop it up]. That’s all of them guys just playing straight through. [Then there are tracks like] “Laugh Now Cry Later,” or you could say something like “Will Remain,” where you hear the beat and you could hear the extra live guitar sprinkles of beat on top. It just varies.
Got you. I noticed you’re using a Touch now (the MPC Touch). Have you stopped using the 3000 altogether, or do you use different machines to achieve different sounds?
This album was entirely [made] programming on the MPC software, inside the MPC Touch, and working in Ableton, as well—and Pro Tools. That’s kinda been my production foundation for the past year.
How does creating beats the way you do now, as opposed to traditionally sampling straight from the record into the MPC and just putting it out like that, [effect your writing process]? Do you feel like it changes your approach to songwriting, at all?
Somewhat… I’ve never done away with any of the stuff that I used to do, totally. You could still hear elements of what I used to do maybe on my first album, Popular Demand, all the way up to now. It’s more so about just me adding extra layers on what I’ve started and just keep growing… With each album, you’re gonna get a little bit of something that maybe reminds you of something from the past, but it’s gonna still be something fresh, and new and progressive… I still dig for records, I still chop up samples, I still work with musicians—and I’ve been doing that for a while now. Definitely my songwriting has probably changed more than anything, in comparison to my production. I take that way more serious than I did probably when I was younger, on my first album—’cause at this age, and with all the stuff that’s going on in the world, I feel like I have way more to say.