etroit is still haunted by the ghost of the assembly-line worker, whose endless welding, pounding, and riveting fed a nation’s insatiable appetite for mass-produced tangles of steel and glass. Odd, then, that the former home of Ford’s legions has also produced a smallish clique of rapper-producers who have been steadily but quietly manufacturing boutique beats for the underground public. The passing of D-godfather J. Dilla might have monkeywrenched the operation briefly, but a year later, Detroit’s post-Fordist hip-hop formalism shows no signs of slowing down, at least as far as Black Milk and Ta’raach are concerned. Even with the recent release of Dilla’s resurrected, retooled Ruff Draft pointing back to pas[t/sed] greatness, the two are forging ahead as the new avant-garde of Detroit’s art-hop tradition.
Despite the diversity of Detroit’s influences—old-school hip-hop, a touch of house, jazz, Kraftwerk—there’s a unity. At least, if today’s music is listened through Slum Village’s 2000 touchstone, Fantastic, Vol. 2. Up until that point, Slum-founder Dilla’s stylings had been heard nationally through the work of “conscious/earthy/Afro-centric” artists like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Common. Fantastic, though, was packed end-to-end with raps about ice, Rovers, and menage-a-trois delivered in weird patterns over beats that didn’t so much beat as *bbE-aT-T*. Dilla, T3, and Baatin avoided straight-line movements from down-beat to down-beat at all costs, loosely riding fluctuating basslines with all types of curlicues and zig-zags. Again, breaking from the big truck tradition: we weren’t talking pick-ups and carrying-capacities (how much does it contain?), we were talking high-performance, road-hugging, form-fitting traction (how does it ride?). Who cares what you’re saying? Just make it as formally complex as possible, while keeping it fly.
It’s in that spirit—self-challenging complexity rounded-off with a will to flyness—that Black Milk and Ta’raach have been working. Neither is a stranger to the Detroit scene: Ta’raach aka Lacks has been rapping and producing for over a decade (recently relocating to Pasadena); meanwhile, Milk, along with his B.R. Gunna partner Young RJ, produced the Dirty District, Vol. 2 compilation and contributed key beats to Slum’s last three albums (Trinity, Detroit Deli, and Slum Village).
Milk’s Popular Demand repackages Fantastic’s experimentation with just enough mainstream loudness to keep speakers bumping. The lower registers of cuts like “Insane,” “U,” and “Watch ’Em” bound around with clattering jagged layers that pop, click, and clack—a sure challenge for any MC. More impressive than the intentionally difficult beats, though, is Milk’s ability to rhyme over any and all of his creations. Whether taking on a Jay-Z-style “breathe and stop” flow (“Popular Demand”) or a growly, choppy two-step (“Insane”), he bends, compresses, and expands with ease, tweaking his style 13 times in a 45-minute span.
If Milk has one weakness, it’s in the content department: he hits his lyrical limits by his second verse of the album. Without a doubt, totally form-driven hip-hop doesn’t have to be lyrically deep, but even Fantastic, for all its off-beat wanderings, was packed with one-liners (“Fuck this rap shit / I listen to class-i-cal”). Milk can rhyme endlessly about how well he flows, but can’t signify enough with his sound and fury to balance off two of Michigan’s finest, Elzhi (on “Action”) or One Be Lo (“Take It There”). In a perfect world, some of Milk’s elasticity would loosen-up their own furrow-browed, anxious deliveries.
Unlike Milk, Ta’raach is a seasoned, top-end rhymer. Over the last decade, he’s carved out a unique niche as the driest humorist in a genre that thrives on outsized pronouncements of greatness and outrageous blue humor. From “Big Bang Theory” on, Ta’raach raps with a smug satisfaction that would be maddening if it weren’t so well done. Cocky enough to captivate, he sits back in the beat, brushing off lines with a casualness that borders on the conversational: “Get cash / I wasn’t born / My shit crashed / My real name’s zero-one-dot-seven-six-dash / Admire the truth / It’s like tryna stop Optimus Prime with a tire boot.” You could argue with that, but why would you?
In keeping with his laid-back boasts, The Fevers is full of loping, spacious beats that seem to take their sweet time rolling out the speakers. Potentially frustrating, if they weren’t worth the wait. Except for a brief mid-album shot (“The What What”), Ta’raach’s created an album with its own hazy atmosphere, full of ambient noises and little vocal snatches that hover over deep basslines and drums.
Listened to back-to-back with Milk’s pattern-crazy pieces, The Fevers seems to be an experiment in grinding all of the momentum out of rap. But while Ta’raach’s (anti-) flow is in many ways the opposite of Milk’s aggressive take, both ultimately seem to be up to the same thing: molding deliveries to fit the sound, giving beats what they ask for. For Ta’raach, that means scaling back the intensity a few notches, not just to fill up the space with more meaningful sounds, but also—and maybe more importantly—to mingle with the sparse, hazy music.
In the spirit of the Dirty District aesthetic, here’s an experiment for listeners who like to approach hip-hop obliquely: Rather than ironically detaching yourself from mainstream fodder (*cough*50 Cent*hack*Clipse*upchuck*), trying to convince yourself that Young Jeezy is a post-modern savant, or chuckling at being entertained by music that’s “soooo STREET (and soooo not me),” why not engage the music as a collection of abstract patterns and rhythms? Music takes on new dimensions when it’s heard out the side of your ear, the same way night-cloaked office buildings resolve into toy-like planes of light and color when glanced out the corner of an eye. Mess around with the equalizer. Smudge the lyrics in your mind’s ear into crescendos, cadences, and curls. Don’t (just) think it, intuit it—feel it. Like Dilla said, in classic Detroit fashion: “Just turn up the bass and let the trunk rattle.”
Reviewed by: T.M. Wolf
Reviewed on: 2007-04-03