Blu – NoYork!

Chul Gugich / September 19, 2011

Score: 8.5/10
Warner Brothers Records

As far as underground rappers go, Blu represents near perfection. Ever since Below The Heavens, his 2007 collaboration with producer Exile, West Coast kids rocking Jansports and Vans have used the MC’s albums like warm blankets, Golden Era-type soundscapes perfect for draping over themselves during chilly winter nights on the Pacific Ocean. Blu has been at the center of the next wave of the underground Cali rap tradition, the same one that celebrated crews like The Pharcyde and Hieroglyphics have carried since the early 1990s.

Heavens also revealed Blu to be the region’s best answer to Black Thought, a thinking man’s lyricist who fits and forms his dense thought patterns into metronome-riding perfection. He’s not always the most interesting MC to listen to, but his range of styles and consistently excellent technical prowess puts him in the same class as The Roots’ frontman. While Heavens featured Exile’s expertly-chopped soul samples with perfectly-matched boom-bap — nostalgia purified for the 90s revivalist set — Blu’s most recent LP, NoYork!, finds the artist diverging wide and clear of that convention, instead favoring genre-bending electronic expanses with like-minded producers such as Flying Lotus, Daedelus and Shafiq Husayn (of Sa-Ra), along with usual hip-hop suspects Exile and Madlib.

Blu wastes no time departing from his musical past. Album opener, “Doin’ Nothing,” which features an assist from Wu-Tang’s U-God in straight hypnotist mode, is a deconstruction of everything Below The Heavens stood for: a distorted, anodyne composition with descending bass and a downtempo march that remarkably feels like it goes nowhere and everywhere at the same time. For most of NoYork!’s running time, the more voltaically-focused composers find hip-hop nuances in similarly unlikely spaces. There’s the nervous frantic glitch of “Everything OK” and the stretched-out 8-bit synth of “Above Crenshaw,” a track which finds its spirit in the tradition of G-funk but provides a fresh direction for the SoCal subgenre. Blu does find room in NoYork!’s second half for expanding on the jazz-infused excursions of 2009’s Her Favorite Colo(u)r and more traditional underground rap leanings of 2008’s Johnson&Jonson, but when paired against NoYork!’s primary sonic focus, the later tracks sound surprisingly lifeless.

After the triumph that was Below The Heavens, Blu didn’t seem to know which rap direction to travel in. And the truth is, there weren’t many good options. His subsequent albums with less-skilled production partners were uneven and his rapping wasn’t as lively or focused as with Exile. Fact is, Blu could have taken the easy way out and done more of the same (and may still — there is a follow-up album with Exile in the works) for his first major label release. But instead we get the unconventional NoYork! which is also a triumph, but for totally different reasons. On Heavens, the MC maneuvered like an expert on well-traveled ground, but here he blazes forward, freshly-tilling hip-hop soil for artists after him who don’t even know the land exists yet.

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