In these times when digital downloads are the norm, I reminisce about the days when vinyl ruled. I would rush home from a record store, rip the cellophane off, and wait for the needle to drop on the record. There was magic in waiting for the power and glory of music to fill the room transporting me to another place. That is exactly what occurred from the moment No Poison, No Paradise began to blast from my speakers and carry me on sound waves straight to the streets of Detroit and into a musical milieu crafted by Curtis Cross, widely known as the rapper Black Milk.
Just like saying "the hottest fires make the strongest steel" Black Milk is a product of tough town where a person can't even take God-given talent for granted. In No Poison, No Paradise Black Milk assumes the role as storyteller. From the first track to the last, Black Milk depicts the life of Sonny, an African-American male trying to navigate the treacherous terrain of an urban environment from his youth to maturity. Each track on the album presents the story so clearly to me, I started creating music videos in my head while I listened.
There are definitely tracks that stand out on the album. The first track, Interpret Sabotage, begins with a Neo soul feel until static interrupts the mellow vibe similar to a pirate radio station taking over an airwave frequency. Milk presents an overview of the album over electronic music that heightens the tension. His rapid fire rapping is filled with observations about trying to find success in the high-stakes game of life when the gutter or the grave are gritty outcomes for making bad choices. The chorus, "I know that I've been on this road forever/And still I know/That things are gon' get better" cuts through the chaos as an expression of Sonny's inner affirmation of endurance in spite of adversity.
Another stand out is Sunday's Best. Anyone familiar with the black church experience will feel a tingle in their bones when they hear the choir singing "I've never seen the righteous forsaken/Nor his seed beg bread" at the beginning of Sunday's Best. Black Milk artfully chose an identifiable phrase that has been repeated countless times within the context of the black experience as a message of hope in the midst of dire circumstances. But it is hard to deny the irony of such lyrics when played against the backdrop of the violence, poverty, and despair of 'hood life. Monday's Worst is a strong companion track to Sunday's Best describing the clear consequences of life on the streets. Just like the Motor City rapper Black Milk calls home, there is a subtext of 'never say die' in the lyrics "It's never too late to get your values straight." There is room for optimism. The nexus of both songs is emphasized in the video combining both tracks.
While examining the progression of one man's life, Black Milk enlightens listeners with scenes of darkness as well as light. Black Milk's character is allowed to love, hate, contemplate his fate, make mistakes, reminisce, and face his demons. More important, Sonny is allowed to dream. The instrumental Sonny Jr. (Dreams) is an unexpected break at track 5, allowing Sonny to take a pause from the world's madness and his ongoing inner monologue. In this album of contrasts, it is unavoidable not to see the oxymoron of "black milk" defined. Just like the color black is the absorption of light and milk is a white, nourishing substance, Black Milk demonstrates in this album his capacity for talking in the colorful aspects of life and feeding himself as well as others with plenty of food for thought.
The production value of this studio album is enough to whet the appetite for a Black Milk live show. Black Milk allows the lyrics to dictate the flow of the album. There is a certain level of comfort he seems to embrace in his lyricism. Sometimes an artist can come across on an album as if they are trying to prove something to themselves and others with their performance. Something may seem forced or unauthentic. That is not the case with Black Milk. Maybe Black Milk feels more self-assured in his personal evolution or more musically mature with this album. Whatever it may be, listening to him on tracks like Perfected On Puritan Ave. assures the listener that he is aiming for longevity while he continues to grow as creative force.
I put No Poison, No Paradise in my personal category called 'a thinking man and woman's hip hop.' It gets better and more revealing the more you listen to it. Although the beats and lyrics will surely move a crowd, no one will be Twerking to the tracks on this album. Each song is like good Scotch served neat that should be sipped slowly and if possible, shared with friends.
Black Milk hit the mark with this album. No Poison, No Paradise is like a V8 engine moving Detroit's native son forward on the road of musical success. I'm glad he's taking us along for the ride.