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BeatTips Beat Breakdown: Black Milk Shows Range with “Play the Keys”

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Impressive Key-Work Mark this Warm-Feeling Gem

By AMIR SAID (SA’ID)

Black Milk’s “Play the Keys” is truly a subtle masterpiece; it’s impressive for a number of reasons. First, let’s begin with the obvious: the key work.

Any beatmaker whose ever struggled to make some keys sound like they were sampled will certainly appreciate how Black Milk works the keys on this joint. Often keys can sound too electric and/or too “neo-soulish,” but here, Black Milk throws down a key line that relishes in a warm repetitiveness, and thus, avoids the stale cliche of key lines that often populate many of today’s beats. The key-riff on “Play the Keys” swirls upward in an ascending pattern for a bar and half, before it descends in equal fashion on the latter part of the second bar. And at the end of this riff, Black Milk opts not to go for a “smooth” loop transition with this riff; instead, he chops the end off, thereby bringing up the front of the riff as if it were a sample. Notice the “dead spot” of the loop point, where the kick hits hard and flush right as the core measure loops back to itself.

Having established the brutally warm key-riff, Black Milk eases in a bass line that is slow, and slightly dragging behind the riff’s lead—pure master beatwork! And once the bass line’s been added, Black Milk colors the top of the groove with a light, futuristic-like synth sound for the subtle melody line.

For the drumwork, Black Milk constructs a framework that defers—as it should—to the dominance of the key riff. As such, Black Milk uses drum sounds that are neither sonically “harsh” or soft but easy sounding. His use of a brushed hi-hat is particularly worth noting, as the way he programs it to shuffle through each measure is nothing less than right on point. Going with a boom kick that contains less attack was also another dope move. As for the snare, again, the star attraction of this beat is the key riff; therefore, Black Milk keeps the snare flat—almost tucked—and not too decorated—very little compression and reverb. Finally, rounding out the drum framework, Black Milk adds in various pieces of percussion. Even though the groove hit hard without it, I still concede that the additional percussion gave the beat a nice touch.

For educational purposes…

Black Milk – “Play the Keys”


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About Author

Amir Said (aka Sa’id) is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of BeatTips. A writer, publisher, and beatmaker/rapper from New York, Said is the author of a number of books, including ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ ‘The Art of Sampling,’ ‘Ghetto Brother,’ and ‘The Truth About New York.’ He is also a recording artist with a number of music projects, including the albums 'Soul Review' and 'The Best of Times.' Follow him on Twitter at: @amirsaid and @BeatTipsManual