For the amount of work that Black Milk released two years ago, championed by his widely-acclaimed album Tronic, 2009 felt like the Detroit producer/emcee was in hibernation by comparison. Respectfully so, other events came to the forefront, including personal woes, touring, and delays on future projects. Channeling his energy into Album Of The Year, Black Milk highlights his past year on a 12-track album that shows his growth as an artist and a person.

As if it would be any surprise, Black Milk’s beats for his new album raises the bar for any producer that considers themself a worthy peer. Recapping the past year on “365,” he combines up-tempo drums with sparse horns that properly fit the bounce of the record. Black Milk then delivers a dose of audio ecstasy with “Keep Going” as explosive crash cymbals and throbbing bass drum kicks take the record to the next level. Here he highlights the live instrumentation that has been incorporated into his compositional arsenal as of late. Much like the adventurous trial of his crawling synth melody behind Tronic’s “Bounce,” Black takes another step into experimental land with “Gospel Psychedelic Rock.” While the clash of genres takes some time getting used to, ultimately this is a musical tangent that is worth exploring.

Throughout Album Of The Year it’s evident that Black Milk’s microphone skills have improved as well since his last offering. Sure, he at times makes punch line blunders like on “Warning (Keep Bouncing)” (“I hate niggas, need to get Alife like the clothes” and “Not Stevie, more like Wonder ’cause I’m all about the bread”). However, he steps up when it counts, specifically his bar-for-bar battle with Detroit brethren Royce Da 5’9’’ and eLZhi on the menacing cutthroat record “Deadly Medley”.

Not only that, but Black Milk has been able to turn his once-simplistic formula into something much more substantial. No better example of this turns up than on “Distortion,” a telling record that reveals his bout with stress and depression following a near-fatal stroke to his manager hex murda, as well as the untimely deaths of Slum Village member/friend Baatin and his aunt. Not to say that one single event was more important than the rest, but it’s clear that hex murda was heavy on his mind while writing this record. Seeing him in his possible last days, Black Milk painfully raps, “My nigga dying on his hospital bed / He laying there, I’m hoping he hang in there / They say he might not make it, they don’t even care / Don’t even know people consider him as a pioneer.” Along with his distinct delivery, “Distortion” may be Black’s most engaging record yet.   

While no track off Album Of The Year should be described as “throwaway,” a few records do sound less exceptional than the rest. “Oh Girl” fits this label as emphasis on the opposite sex puts the track in subject matter limbo. Though there’s nothing particularly wrong with the effort, it feels out of place, especially in between “Keep Going” and “Deadly Medley.” Then there’s “Round Of Applause,” a celebratory record that lasts a little too long. This time around the featured offbeat drum pattern comes off as sloppy rather than in the pocket.

With a career that spans nearly a decade, the album-ending “Closed Chapter” arguably takes its place as Black Milk’s magnum opus. Supported by a serene guitar riff and tempered drums, he reflects on his path to success. Humbly thanking his lucky stars, he rhymes, “Wish my nigga Proof was living to see this / Wish that nigga Dilla could hear this new shit / Set out all my dreams, set out all my goals / Wished for a lot of things, came for what I asked for / Only God knows where this roller coaster ride goes / But reaching those dreams the only thing I know.”

After listening to Album Of The Year, it’s easy to understand why Black Milk chose such a boastful title to represent his latest work. Whether he spent two years or four months creating this project, the effort behind it is palpable enough for someone to realize that he lives and breathes music. The same could be said for his producing influence and Detroit counterpart J Dilla. Let’s just hope listeners give him due respect before it’s too late.