Following an understated introduction, Black Milk's band appeared on stage and began to play, starting with an actual drum roll. Those drumstick snaps seemed to stretch for an impossible duration, each thump another block stacked atop a mounting tension that felt like it could topple at any moment. And then it happened. From a corner, out from the shadows, sprung new Dallas resident Curtis Cross, a.k.a. Black Milk. With a single broad, drifting stroke, he was at center stage with mic in hand. He wasn't there, and then he was. It was instantaneous; like a spark jumping a gap.
As the crowd drew closer to the stage, the space lost its vacant dimensions and became very small, dwarfed in the face of Black Milk's alarmingly commanding presence. As marionettes, throbbing and swelling like the breaths of a single body, the audience gave in to every bobbing gesture thrown down from Cross -- an artist who, for the next two hours, would feel like the center of the hip-hop universe.
At this point it was past midnight and like many others I'd been here since eight, so when Black Milk finally made his way on stage it followed a great deal of build-up. Still, there were no fireworks, no laser-light show, no towering Jumbotron. Just an unassuming looking man with a sweat cloth and a microphone. So why did it feel so momentous?
Somehow in a genre of big talking, falsely inflated egos, stands the underwhelming persona, but overwhelming talent of Black Milk. This is an artist who clearly does not require the crutches of glitzy stage-sets and cinematic projections to impart his effortless magnetism. Cross has no need for these extras; in his world of soul-tugging productions and machinegun-as-velvet delivery they are merely distractions. On this realization, and in the moment, it was hard not be floored by the obvious: this is what talent with genuine poise really looks and sounds like.
As an artist known more for his production chops (on par with the likes of Q-tip and yes, sometimes even Kanye West) than his MC skills, Black Milk stunned me. With laser like focus, he spat bar after bar of poetics, the cadence of which marched hand-in-hand with the rhythm of his backing band. I was definitely expecting the sample-heavy majesty of his instrumentals, but I was not prepared to be so moved by his lyrical pacing. Oh, what a fool I was.
For an artist with two masterpieces under his belt - the percussion heavyAlbum of the Year
and the synthyTronic
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- Black Milk performed like he still has plenty left to prove. Pulling heavily from the two aforementioned albums, with some new material sprinkled in, the night's selections were all over the board, but came off uniform. The peak of the evening was undoubtedly the back-to-back onslaught of Tronic tracks "Bounce" and "Hold it Down." When they hit it was like someone set a fire in the crowd. Onlookers seemed stunned by the sheer richness of the experience. Personally, I can still feel the shivered adrenaline buzz that ensued--a high I wouldn't shake for hours afterward. Frankly, hip-hop is still learning how to sound this soulful, this funky. Well, Dallas, for a night at Club Dada, it seemed we had the skeleton key living in our midst, and it was fucking awesome.
On any other night and given any other performer, the band would have stolen the show. Their performance was nothing short of magnificent. The instrumentalists gave Black Milk's set something that all the openers lacked, that visceral, organic charge exclusive to analog musicianship. With eyes closed, you could have sworn you were at a jazz club, swept up in a wake of enormously infectious bass lines and showering synth tones. This was no mere coincidence, given that Jazz heavyweight Robert Glasper appears on Cross's upcoming LP No Poison No Paradise. A few technical sound quirks aside, everything, EVERYTHING, went right for Black Milk on Friday night. Apart from the audience, the only person I can imagine being more excited about how the night went down is Black Milk himself. This was one hell of a way to start a tour.
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Before you knew it the set was done. Lightning had struck, the thunderous music faded, and like a wisp of smoke he was off. Just as swiftly as he had come on stage, Black Milk disappeared. Instantly, the temperature felt like it dropped ten degrees. With his absence came a stillness, the energy had been sucked from the room. For any artists reading this, that's how you finish a set; you always leave the crowd fevered and anxious, hungry for more.
To cap the night, I caught up with Cross backstage, and in one word he summed the night up perfectly: "Unexpected." "There were maybe four Detroit people in the audience tonight, I wasn't expecting a crowd like this."
Regardless of how high the expectations might have been, no one could have expected a performance like that. The evening was invigorating, spellbinding, fun, and yes, most definitely unexpected. Bravo Black Milk, Bravo.