The jagged Low End rap of Blu’s ‘NoYork!’ mixtape
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The Low End Theory has crossed the threshold where it’s as much aesthetic as brick-and-mortar blunt shelter. Sure, you can still sojourn to the Airliner every Wednesday, but its influence has bled out to all parts of the world and all shadows of the city. Witness the latest album from Blu, the San Pedro-raised rapper named Johnson Barnes, who first came to fame in 2007 via the throwback ‘70s Buick cruise and coming-of-age tales of ‘Below the Heavens.’
Shortly thereafter Blu signed with Warner Bros. and has since taken a sine curve pattern as the model for his career. People close to his camp -- label affiliated and non-affiliated -- twice played me early drafts of what eventually became his latest LP, ‘NoYork!’ It was pretty obvious that the slashing collection of songs was nowhere near commercial enough to ever see major label release. The production list included Low End Theorists Samiyam and Flying Lotus, along with assists from Madlib, and his regular collaborators Exile and Mainframe.
There was something completely commendable about Blu’s recalcitrance. Rather than make a ‘Below the Heavens’ Part 2 with R&B hooks and auto-tune, Barnes kept his advance and made psychedelic noise-rap over beats as bright and crunchy as Fruity Pebbles, yet nowhere near as sugary. Rather than release mixtapes laden with the Warner Bros. guest stars, he released jazzy lo-fi jaunts on his Bandcamp with no advance production. When I asked a source close to him why they were never released officially I was told, ‘Blu lost the files.’
At a time when indie rappers take careerism as seriously as their indie rock brethren did in the ‘90s, Blu has attempted to blow up any stereotypes we may have harbored about him. In the process, he’s ingratiated himself even more to contrarian types, even though he has essentially refused to cater to anyone’s expectations. Despite a trail of rumors and blog posts promoting this as his Warner Bros. debut, ‘NoYork!’ leaked two weeks ago with little fanfare. Blu hasn’t done any interviews, nor has he updated his website New World Color, nor even provided a list of who produced what.
But with ‘NoYork!’ he’s shredded every box you could place him in. On opening track ‘DOINNOTHIN’ he recruits the Wu-Tang’s U-God and drops slanted heavy internal rhymes over one of Flying Lotus’ more dissonant beats. On ‘Above Crenshaw,’ he and Co$$ (billed as Cashus King) reference the ‘Humpty Dance,’ pig latin, the Slauson swap meet and pornography, new leather Penny Hardaway sneakers and Grant Hill Filas. There are guest appearances from J*Davey and the similarly enigmatic Edan, the latter who drops one of the year’s best verses on ‘Ronald Morgan.’
Firmly grounded in the larynx-crushing electronic bass of the Low End Theory, the album touches upon soul, jazz and straight up boom-bap rap, with Blu alternately nostalgic and forward-minded. Thus far, its reception has been mixed. It’s too bizarre for the underground kids and too obtuse for the street rap types, it manages to confuse everyone and it’s an album more sincerely strange than any of the more straightforwardly weird records that are all the rage.
You can download ‘NoYork!’ with hazy legality.
-- Jeff Weiss