In years past, Black Milk didn’t mind telling you how dope he thought he was. A talented producer/MC, Milk had the beats and bravado to back up his confident claims. On his new album, No Poison No Paradise, however, Milk lets someone else do the talking: “Sonny,” a semi-fictional character loosely based on his own upbringing in Detroit.
While Milk’s previous album, 2010’s Album of the Year, was a celebratory look at his own achievements, No Poison No Paradise is a cinematic journey through ethereal samples, old gospel and jazz improvisation.
Hive spoke with Black Milk about the new album, its creative process and why he needed “Sonny” to tell his story.
It’s been almost three years since the release of Album of the Year. Why did it take so long to create the new record?
It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing where I was like, “Yo, I’mma take three years off.” After Album of the Year, I wanted to take a little bit of time and try to get better as an artist — from writing to producing. It started off with me wanting to be a better engineer, to get me to understand my music better. I wanted to wrap my mind around the engineering aspect of music versus just producing.
Once I got into that — filling my brain up with all this information — time started getting away from me. The next thing I knew, weeks passed by, months passed by, then a whole year passed by [laughs]. I hadn’t made any new music because I was so stuck on trying to perfect my craft as a producer and engineer. I wanted to take it to the next level as an engineer. But I’m in a place right now where I like what I’m creating; I like what’s coming out of my speakers, so I feel like I’m ready to be active again.
It seemed the last album was introspective, yet celebratory. The new album tells a story. Was that done on purpose?
Yeah. When I started putting the album together, the first couple records were “Sunday’s Best” and “Monday’s Worst.” The first track had this gospel sample, then I thought, “I like this, let’s see where this goes.” Naturally, I thought about writing something about me being brought up in the church and coming from a religious background.
I wrote “Sunday’s Best” around how I didn’t really understand what was going on at the time, having to go to church every Sunday. Then I had “Monday’s Worst” with the sample, “It’s never too late to get your values straight.” It came to me kinda easy like, “Yo, why don’t I make these beats go together and make this a part two of the first record?” It tells the story from a young adult perspective on life. It describes a good kid who made some bad decisions. It was based on some of my life experiences. I was trying to show how you can still be raised right, but the influences and the peer pressure can make you go another route.
After I created those two songs, other tracks started to build around them. I didn’t want to make an album that was telling my life story, because I didn’t think that would be original. A lot of rappers do that. I wanted to make a character for the album, and create this story for the character while putting my own life into it. I wanted the album to feel somewhat like a dream.
Who is Sonny?
It was a name that came to mind, ya know. It wasn’t anyone in particular that I’ve known in real life. I wrote a list of names out, but “Sonny” was the one that just stuck out to me, and I thought, “I’mma go with that name.” It sounds like a young nickname and I threw “Jr.” at the end of it because I’m a Jr. in real life. It’s pretty random.
How much of the narrative is based on real life, and how much is imagined?
“Perfected on Puritan Ave.” is real, especially the story of the first verse and me talking about growing up in the neighborhood and having a best friend across the street. We had dreams of being professional basketball players, and if that didn’t work out, we’d pursue rap careers. We had an OG on the block we used to call “Man.” He used to always bet on our games when we played different blocks. “Man” got killed. He got jumped, and his mom came next door to my parents’ house and told us what happened. All that stuff was actually a real story.
That second verse was me talking from first perspective of what actually happened in my life, but I wanted to word it in a way where it seemed I was talking about someone else. The second verse was about me getting into the music industry, and once I started making money, how I bought a Range Rover and started wylin’ out with my friends. I wanted to show you how I went from one place as a younger adult and came into some money. Then on the next song, “Dismal,” it talks from an older perspective. There, I wrote something a little more dramatic than my real life. It’s about how a person sees certain success and loses control of it all. Now he’s trying to figure out how to pursue his future.
There’s another track on the album called “Deion’s House” where I speaking from one of my friend’s perspective. He knows he’s a bad influence on Sonny; he wasn’t raised with both of his parents but Sonny was. At the same time, he’s trying to make sure Sonny is headed in the right direction because he sees the talent that Sonny has. A lot of the stuff is real and a lot of the stuff is someone else’s story that I might’ve seen along the way.
What are the similarities and differences between Album of the Year and No Poison No Paradise?
I feel like I’m more relaxed on this album. I feel like I’ve finally found a sound that I’m really comfortable with. I think I’ve figured out how to incorporate all the different styles I like to experiment with. I finally understand how to make everything sound cohesive. I’ve put a little bit of soul here, a little bit of experimental stuff over there, some jazz, some rap and put it all onto one album. I wanted to produce it in a way where it all still made sense. I’m still pleasing the fans that like these different styles of my production.
There are certain fans that love Album of the Year — that love the live instrumentation stuff — that might be their favorite album. Then there are certain fans that love Tronic because it’s a little more synthetic. Then there are certain fans that might like Popular Demand the most because it’s more on the soul tip. I’ve figured out how to incorporate the sounds from all three of those albums into one and make it flow together.
No Poison No Paradise is out October 15 on Fat Beats/Computer Ugly.