Born To Be Blu

In December 2015, Los Angeles MC Blu went on a seemingly unprovoked Twitter tirade, taking aim at fellow west-coast veterans Alchemist and Evidence for reportedly condoning police brutality. It was shocking, but unfortunately, hardly surprising. 

The erratic outbreak – an ugly affair in which Blu offered up more homophobic slurs than supporting proof of his claim – was another incident of troubling behaviour from an artist who recently has been unravelling just publicly enough to cause concern amongst those that still care.

In the social media age, it’s become harder to separate an artist’s behaviour from their music and, at the same time, it’s never been easier for a hero to jump off their pedestal.  Sometimes though, it’s still possible for an artist's ugly reality to co-exist with a fan’s fantasy. Blu’s real life persona of an absentee, drug-addled, train-wreck is jarringly dissimilar from the intense, agile-minded savant that exists on record. In Blu’s case, the disconnect between music and person seems so scarily vast that it doesn’t help to intensify the narrative of his music, it just feels tragic and disappointing. Blu deserves to be whoever he chooses but my warped vision of what I want him to be makes it hard to come to terms with that person it’s becoming clearer he really is. Ultimately though, throughout his career Blu has seemingly done anything he can to lower fans’ expectations, fleeing from any hint of fame and the obligations that come with it. The problem with that however has always been that Blu is too damn talented to ever truly escape the attention.

As much as he’d like us to believe otherwise, Blu is one of the most gifted and artistically attuned MCs of the 21st century and there are few artists that have assembled a more dynamic and diverse body of work within the last decade. The following piece is an attempt to reveal more about the music and complex character behind it by examining the sounds and history of some of his key works. In spite of his persona, Blu has created art that deserves to be appreciated, whether he wants people to or not.

BELOW THE HEAVENS 

For most Blu fans, it began here - and how could it not? Blu's debut found him at his most direct, focused and charged-up, intent on introducing the world to a young MC whose combination of skills and consciousness, from a seemingly authentic west-coast setting, was the complete package.

Blu was the everyman. He rode the bus and punched the clock but did it all with an unassuming confidence that was magnetic. It was the future with a foot in the past. Anchored by Exile’s stellar and often underrated production, this album presented the rare case of a rapper who was smart but honestly didn’t care If you knew it or not.  

Blu had a battler’s spirit and a visceral intent in his lines but they were never for grandstanding, never being clever for the sake of clever. Instead Blu rapped like it was a primordial instinct. Whether or not you chose to appreciate his lines was of no concern to him.

Below The Heavens is a cohesive masterpiece that was too sonically and emotionally powerful to ever stay a secret, but it has remained under-the-radar enough for new listeners to feel like it was their discovery. It has never received the kind of accolades that dictate an essential work; the kind forced upon people as mandatory listening by hip hop scholars. Instead it was the kind of release that felt personal enough change the life of any that stumbled upon it, something it has continued to do ever since.

It’s almost sad to listen to this album now as Blu has never since sounded like he cared this much about his music. Below The Heavens feels like the album that made Blu’s dreams come true and also the point at which he realised that the dream he’d been chasing was not for him.

But it was too late. He had already offered the people something special, and in a genre that is always eager to anoint its next saviour, it’s no surprise that disciples and devotion followed on from here and perhaps signalled the beginning of the end for Blu. 

This album is now widely considered to be Blu’s one truly great body of work; an early peak in a career that has since been marred by confusion, mistakes and ultimately, disappointment.

HER FAVORITE COLOR 

For his many faults, Blu has never starved fans of new music in a way similarly enigmatic geniuses have taken pride in doing (uh, Jay Electronica). In the time following Below The Heavens, Blu quickly released The Piece Talks with Detroit MC Ta'Raach as well as Johnson&Jonson with producer Mainframe: Two enjoyable projects but ones that are fairly forgettable in the grand scheme of things.

The next release to truly advance the narrative of Blu’s career was Her Favorite Color, a frustrating departure for many but also a rewarding listen for those with patience that, over time, has revealed itself to be unique both in the context of Blu’s career and within hip hop as a whole.

Her Favorite Color is rap for the sake of art – a platform for no grand statements beyond pure self-expression. It’s intimate and personal, and although it’s lyrically cryptic compared to the explicit storytelling of Below The Heavens, this release sometimes feels like the most open window to Blu’s character to exist on record.

Sonically it casts a warm but lonely scene, one where Curtis Mayfield, Thom Yorke and Bill Murray all make appearances in the dusty collage of samples that provide the backdrop for Blu’s new subdued flow. He delivers profound vignettes through a wheeze of blunt smoke with lines as quietly classic as the films he sampled.

This might be the most obvious example in history of someone airing their record/movie collection on record, but Blu’s high-minded curation skills help the pieces to come together in a haze of borrowed expression without ever feeling like a self-conscious art installation.

It’s here you really get a sense of Blu as an old soul, a gentle indie-flick lover who imagines his life through a lens and dreams of making movies. It’s been hard to picture that the same old soul is responsible for so much of what was to follow. 

NOYORK! 

Some artists were never meant to work with major labels. Knowing what we know now, a partnership between Blu and Warner Brothers was comically misguided, ranking up there with Daniel Johnston and Death Grips as one of the more questionable major label signings in recent memory.

However, it’s no surprise that majors were interested at the time. Blu’s stock had been rising and had culminated in an XXL Freshmen placement; an accolade at the peak of its relevancy at the time. There was a quiet expectation that Blu was to become the saviour of west coast hip hop – a role which Kendrick Lamar ended up seizing after it soon became apparent that Blu had very different ideas.

Instead of watering down his original sound to prepare for a push at a wider audience, Blu took such a left turn that even his most avid fans found it hard to adjust to. Blu recruited the likes of Flying Lotus and Knxwledge, the same west coast beat pioneers that Kendrick Lamar was praised for working with four years later. No one was ready for the resulting experimental combination of glitch-beat freak-outs and sunny jazz non-sequiturs – least of all his new major label partners.

The deal with Warner Brothers collapsed after they refused to release the album and Blu was later reportedly seen giving away copies of the record at Rock The Bells. When many obtained the subsequent leak, it was hard to place this as the same bright-eyed MC they had heard on Below The Heavens.

NoYork! is a move that could be written off as self-destructive; another act in Blu’s ongoing aversion to fame or even basic success. However, a great artist should challenge their fanbase and, if released when and in the manner it was intended, this album could have represented something quite special both for Blu and for hip hop.

Good art always survives and NoYork! was so far ahead of its time that it still managed to sound cutting edge when it was commercially released two years later. Art is contextual though and the full impact of its bravery and foresight was stolen away by unfortunate industry bullshit. Wasted talent and wasted opportunities are a recurring theme in Blu’s career and perhaps it’s on NoYork! that the ‘what-ifs?’ sting the hardest. 

GIVE ME MY FLOWERS WHILE I CAN STILL SMELL THEM

Over time it became clear that Blu’s disinterest in peoples’ opinions had stretched to the point where he didn’t particularly care if people even heard his music. Fans began to only witness Blu’s music when it was sporadically coughed up onto Bandcamp, usually un-mixed and un-mastered and clearly with absolutely no intention of making fans aware of the material.

Following the NoYork! fallout, things got weird very quickly. UCLA, a supposed collaboration with Stones Throw stalwart Madlib, was uploaded and subsequently pulled from Bandcamp after the producer denied any involvement in the project.

Underneath the self-destruction though, the music was mostly still frustratingly good. These often fine works became victims of Blu’s self-sabotage and perhaps none was more undeservingly affected than Give Me My Flowers…, the long awaited second album with Exile, which arrived in 2011 in a borderline unlistenable state.

By reuniting with the producer that birthed his seminal work, fans were expecting a true sequel and an end to the unpredictable ride they’d been on. When the battered and bruised album was finally spewed out however, it instead served as final confirmation that the Blu they once knew was long gone.

Eventually over a year later, after heavy demand from confused and disappointed fans, the album was rereleased with the audio issues ironed out and it absolutely shone. Mixing the smoked-out, artisanal delicacy of his later work with all his early urgency, Give Me My Flowers was a step beyond even his debut and tracks like the poetic A Man rank among his finest work.

Over the years, many have attempted to explain Blu’s erratic behaviour, citing drug and mental health issues or even just pointing to a complete aversion to fame. Given all the unexplained troubles in Blu’s life though, we should at least be thankful he has wrestled his demons enough over time to produce so many great works even if they may not always arrive when or even how they were expected. 

BAD NEIGHBOR 

We arrive at the present with Blu’s latest release Bad Neighbor, another in a series of collaborations between legendary producer Madlib and perennially-mediocre rapper MED. In a subtle (by Blu’s standards) stylistic shift, this album and 2014’s Good To Be Home have seen Blu settle into what could be called a traditional west coast sound, emulating the hardcore rap style of the post NWA-era with an added touch of red-eyed dreaminess.  

The resulting album has been described as ‘fun’, a showcase of jovial cyphers over Madlib’s crusty funk reworks that sees Blu revisit some of the young-buck bolshiness that he flashed way back on his early joints.

The word ‘fun’, however would imply that there was a sense of energy to the release. Instead it sags with lethargy, showing an artist who has perhaps worn himself out trying to grapple with his own artistic unpredictability. Here Blu has settled for the bare minimum because pushing the boundary has become too much work. While some see merit in his casual delivery, it feels wasted on an artist who once gave the impression that he would die for his art.

With Blu doing no interviews, no live dates and seemingly giving no shits as to whether it succeeded or not, the album was released in October 2015 and has not been talked about since. Whether it was his goal to or not, Blu has finally killed all my expectations of him. After this long, I have no idea what he will do next – personally or musically. He could release his magnum opus tomorrow or make headlines for another awful Twitter outbreak and neither would surprise me. Painfully though, I can’t help but care. As much as I’ve grown to resent the man himself, his art has affected me so much that the eternal promise of more is enough to keep me trapped.

A lot of artists are canonised in death simply because they lose the ability to disappoint. The closure allows fans to choose how they want to remember someone without the fear of new actions disrupting that memory. Good art isn’t an excuse for shitty behaviour but it is a reason to never stop caring about the artist who birthed it. Blu has tested the limits of what fans will tolerate for good music and, even whilst despising the man behind it all, I’ll still be here waiting for the chance to have my life changed by it all over again.


Words by William Dop