About a year ago, a virtual unknown Los Angeles based emcee, Blu, teamed with Emanon producer, Exile, to deliver Below The Heavens. This album was heavily argued as an underground classic, receiving spots on numerous year-end lists (this site not withheld), and even garnering props from XXL Magazine, who rarely salutes the backpack scene. The reason for the album’s success was twofold. First, Blu was a fresh new face with a passion for rhyming that exhibited itself in every verse. Meanwhile, Exile was a classically trained hip-hop producer that helped bring out the best in him, thanks to his brilliant beat backdrops that evoked sounds of the early 90’s, without sounding dated or unoriginal.
Six months following, Blu teamed up with Ta’raach to form C.R.A.C. (pronounced “crass”), who together collaborated on The Piece Talks LP for Tres Records. An experimental record, the album found the duo at their blunted best, showing range, but also alienating the more traditional underground fanbase that preferred the more conventional style of Below The Heavens. This time around, Blu is front and center again, now joining producer Mainframe for “Johnson and Jonson”. But is this a worthy follow-up to Below The Heavens, or another mish-mash of sounds and styles like The Piece Talks? The answer: a little bit of both.
Johnson and Jonson is more of an album than the C.R.A.C. project, as it follows a more down-to-earth formula of beats and lyrics, rather than the hodge-podge of instrumentals and skits that The Piece Talks was. This makes it more of an unofficial sequel to Below The Heavens, however Mainframe’s production has a style all it’s own, and differs from what we heard from Exile. Mainframe takes a cue from producers like Danger Mouse or J. Dilla, with more of a lo-fi approach, letting dusty, sampled vocals run wild, rather than just simply chopping and looping them in standard arrangements.
This style of beat might fit someone like Ghostface perfectly, but Blu does a great job of latching on to these off-kilter selections and doing what he does best. The album begins with the title track, “J&J”, a messy mash of sixties psychdelica, leading one to believe this would be another ultra experimental project. And it is, in places, but it’s not so weird that there is nothing to grab on to. “Go For The Gusto Room”, for instance, might have one of the meatiest beats on the album, but Blu sticks to the script recounting tales of a bad trip to Vegas, while comedian BoBo Lamb delivers a hilarious narrative about the ills of gambling.
Things are taken more down to earth on “Up All Night”, where a drunken Blu fills the smoke filled room with freestyle rhymes over a slow burning groove. The flip to this is “Half A Knot”, which finds Blu delivering his unique rhyme cadence over up-tempo over neck-snapping guitar licks and horns, impressing with his breathless flow. “Mama Always Told Me” finds Blu if perfect form, recounting tales of his childhood over a lifted funk 45 groove, as Mainframe lets the track breathe, employing various sections of the original sample.
Speaking of which, Mainframe and Blu compliment each other wonderfully on several of the tracks, showing a true collaborative spirit between emcee and producer. On “WOW”, Mainstream finds the perfect 8-bar loop employing the title of the track, as Blu weaves his words around the sampled vocals. Even more creative (and was probably more challenging for Blu) is “The Only Way”, a vintage funk song as Blu duets with the unnamed female vocalist, filling in her empty bars with his own words, completing her thoughts. While this sounds incredible nerdy on paper – not to mention a recipe for disaster if given to the wrong backpack emcee – Blu kills it with ease. The album closes with the, ahem, “fab four” sampled “Hold On John”, as Blu pours his heart out over mellow vocals of “an angel singing Lennon to (him)”.
16 tracks in length, there are a few unmentionable filler tracks, but for the most part, Blu once again proves his worth as a dynamic emcee with tons of creativity, a great voice, ridiculous rhyme structure, solid delivery, and style for days. Mainframe also proves he has enough talent to share the stage with Blu, despite not being quite as rock solid as Exile on the beats. Still, Frame’s production compliments Blu just as well, and the two have carved out another solid entry for Blu’s catalog, and a first for Mainframe’s. Don’t miss this one. – Pizzo
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