A Motor City Connection: Black Milk and Elzhi continue to hold Detroit down
The birthplace of the modern automobile and home to one of the most traditionally rich sports towns in America. It's also home to some of the grittiest rap performances in the history of bars. Music has always been in the fibers of Detroit's DNA, dating back to the 1960s with Berry Gordy Jr. and Motown. The historical pedigree of musicians that were bred from this industrial city could rival and exceed any others in the conversation.
There's a certain toughness and resilience that gets associated with music that comes from the 313. It's a reflection of the hard-working, blue-collar individuals who populate that area. Cold flows and frigid raps from the MCs out of Detroit are about as commonplace as their brick-ass Winter seasons. Legendary lyricists such as Royce Da 5'9" and Eminem and well-known "newer" acts like Big Sean and Danny Brown have immense pride in their city, carrying the influence of their area code into a global territory. Deeply embedded at the core of this grimy underground rap scene are two local denizens who are masters of their trade: Black Milk and Elzhi.
These two Detroit veterans aren't ones that ever received extensive shine atop the Billboard charts, which is not a complete indicator of career success. Heralded and respected amongst residents of the underground, Black Milk and Elzhihave enjoyed success for many years in regards to longevity. Getting attention by doing the flashy thing is easy. Garnering and sustaining said attention by building a strong following is a more difficult task. Fairweather fans don't even make up a third of the population of their core following. Loyal listeners of theirs have been rewarded with fresh new material for a decade plus. With FEVER and Jericho Jackson, 2018 proves to be an additional exhibit for the sentiment of the previous sentence.
Between the two, Jason Powers, more commonly referred to as Elzhi, was the first to make it on the local Detroit rap circuit in the late 90s. He made his splash in the game by contributing on a part-time, then full-time basis to J Dilla (RIP) led soulful hip-hop group, Slum Village. Never undervalued but sometimes overlooked is the lyrical ability of Elzhi. Besides his consistently fluid and bruising flow, the weight of the metaphors and punches hit with the same ferocity as Tommy Hearns. El's witty pen game is a lethal weapon in his arsenal; the most astute of listeners will have to run a track back a few times to catch the full meaning of a line. A verbal assassin that can be mentioned in the same breath as Nas and Kool G. Rapfor his lyrical execution on tracks, Hell, he can be mentioned in the same pantheon as Jay Rock and 2 Chainz for their notorious slayings of guest verses.
The other subject of this piece, Curtis Cross, aka Black Milk, has also been a staple in the Detroit early rap scene, gaining his relevance through the adjacent relationship to Slum Village as well. A list of the DJ Quiks, Q-Tips, and Kanye Wests of the world would be incomplete without the inclusion of Black Milkon the best producer/rappers to ever grace the booth. While his lyrical acumen is on par and above average when compared to the peers of his generation, the 34-year old musician is a virtuoso behind the boards. In addition to his skills on the mic, he's a true dual threat that can savagely create a thudding boom-bap instrumental that'll shake the continental U.S. and beyond. Having produced for the likes of RZA, Danny Brown, Black Thought, and many other hip-hop notables, Black Milk's resume and connected ties to the game run deep. It just so happens that 10 years ago this August, Elzhi's excellent debut project The Preface, was executively produced by Black Milk.
Here we are...a decade later and the Detroit natives sound as rejuvenated and relaxed as ever with their most recent projects, FEVER and Jericho Jackson, both which were released on the same day, February 23, 2018.
Slightly reinventing himself from a sonic perspective, Black Milk elected to move away from electronic programming to focus heavily on live instrumentation for the duration of FEVER (sidebar: fingers crossed that Black Milk completes that unfinished EP with fellow Detroit native Jack White from 2011). The arrangement of several different instruments can be chaotically wild without the proper wrangler. Here, they were neatly assorted into a 12-track, 40-minute project filled with modern rock-based soul. We can extend the description of the album to the territory of blues; the tempo of production does dip and spike throughout, but the serious, real-life subject matter remains consistent. Quickly approaching the threshold of middle-age, Black Milk the rapper has inquisitive verses that don't only challenge the listener but also posits questions for Black Milk the father, husband, and human being.
Matched by the urgent and deranged production on the guitar-heavy "True Lies," a charged up and reflective individual looks back in anger about being a young boy that was led towards a less than advantageous path by a system that's supposed to aid success:
Better brace yourself, brace yourself
We're close to the end, save yourself
You out for the money, make your wealth
Move silent, don't waste your breath
Do better 'cause they never taught us stocks and bonds
Only taught designer clothes, gold chains rocking charms
So I hardly paid attention, in my hood you feel the tension
Well I'd rather make it flipping than to go pay a tuition
For as cathartic as this must have been to Black Milk, the value of that shared message can be extremely high for a young Black teen that grew up in a similar circumstance. He encourages the listener to remain thoughtful and persistent on the path towards their goals, even in the face of adversity. There's a certain energy about FEVER that are equal parts manic and subdued. It could be likened to the rush and mental tug-of-war that occurs prior to giving a public speech in front of hundreds of people. A frenzied analysis of the worst-case scenarios occur on the inside; meanwhile, on the outside, a calm, cool, and collected person delivers a controlled presentation, fueled by the adrenaline from within.
The cohesiveness of FEVER, tied together and decompressed with instrumental beat breaks, displays the high level of composer skills that Black Milk exhibits. Anyone can rap, anyone can produce, but to do both at such an elite level at the midpoint of a career is a feat to be praised.
Creating an age-appropriate album was a similar theme between FEVER and Jericho Jackson. The 4th studio album from the soon-to-be-40-year-old Powers was that of a fully formed adult, dropping gems on the youth that are willing to listen. Insightfully imparting wisdom that was drawn from a place of experience is typically the most effective method of influencing change. Elzhi, with the help of the North Carolina super-producer Khrysis, creates a bleak image of a greyscale world (further represented by the album art). They're not here to sugar coat anything. "Ain't shit sweet" about life when you have to deal with all of its curveballs and misfortunes.
In the stark official opening track after the intro, "Overthinking" explores the wandering thoughts of a weathered mind. At the start of the second verse, he talks about his problems with a previous record deal:
Everybody got flaws including me, I'll admit that
I'm just a kid born in the city where the skinny nigga's die trying to get fat
And sit at the round table thinking once I found a down label
We could build a foundation if the ground stable
My very first contract I signed jerked me
Stuck a toe inside of waters that one would define murky and I almost drowned
With bricks tied to both ankles
That's how it all goes down behind the scenes
Elzhi has a supreme talent for the way he uses his words. It's not just 50 straight bars of surface level punchlines. Being the rap expert that he is, El will casually slide in a handful of metaphors that'll make the listener think. But don't dwell on a thought too long. He's known to slickly transition into the next punchline so effortlessly, its reference won't become apparent to the listener until several spins later (I'm speaking from experience). Having the entirety of the project being produced by a singular producer has benefited him in the past with Black Milk being a pertinent example.
Khyrisis' production on Jericho Jackson was a match made in Heaven, which led to Elzhi flourishing in his element. A deliberately cold atmosphere was created to mirror the not-so-warm vibe that Elzhi tried (and succeeded) in capturing. The album isn't only filled with life lessons and somber narratives. Elzhi flexes lyrical muscles to anyone who dares steps to the microphone to challenge his status as a premiere lyricists. "Breguets" is an onslaught of punchlines and wordplay, attacking wannabes, leaving a trail of insecure rhymesayers in his wake.
One of my previous pieces for The Barber's Chair talked about the predecessors of 4:44. A topic that was explored was how to age appropriately in today's hip-hop climate. The difficulty in creating a grown ass album is real. The major reason? Staying within the current and "fitting in" with the new school. Artists have successfully (and unsuccessfully) switched their steez in an attempt to remain relevant. It's a big risk that could backfire immensely with the alienation of current and prospective fans.
Staying true to self is most important and conforming to recent trends just for a quick buck should never be a priority. Expanding a fanbase by risktaking is important for the growth of an artist. Straying too far from the original blueprint could be problematic, though.
What Elzhi and Black Milk did in 2018 is commendable to say the least. Barely any major alterations were made to their approach and the results yielded a great success. Another thoroughly enjoyable project for the core fanbases of 2 of Detroit's Finest.FEVER and Jericho Jackson both remain true to the established principles of their creators. Without conforming to current waves or sacrificing integrity, both projects can exist in the current hip-hop landscape.
Individually, they are a reprieve from the fast-paced and hyperactive climate. Together, they are an important reminder of integrity. Stay true to your game, mature organically, learn from past mistakes and spread knowledge to those willing to learn. Detroit's rich music tradition has been kept alive not solely, but in large part due to the no-nonsense rap scene. 2 pillars in this strong community showed and proved on February 23, 2018. The breath of the Motor City is still visible to this day.