11 January, 2012@9:48 pm
In 2007, Blu dropped an underground classic with producer Exile called Below The Heavens. Almost a perfect hip-hop record, this was almost the album that closed the book on the indie hip-hop movement. The Fat Beats vinyl era was coming to an end, while the digital blog-hop movement was just beginning. A large part of this new era of releasing hip-hop music via the internet (how revolutionary!) was also kicked off by the debut of XXL’s Freshmen list in 2009. Blu found a place on the magazine’s first list, thanks to the constant replay received by Below The Heavens - well after it’s release – and also landed a deal with Warner Bros.
Since then, we’ve seen Blu drop a handful of independent projects – many times going against the grain, getting downright experimental on the listener. While the response has been hit and miss to many of these lo-fi, unmixed, just-sort-of-thrown-out-there releases, heads have been wondering two things. 1) Where is his long-awaited Warner Bros debut and 2) When will he reunite with Exile for a sequel to Below The Heavens?
Listening to NoYork!, which Blu has released independently at his live shows, it’s clear why Warner never gave the green light to this project. Blu used much of his budget to tap the talents of people like Sa-Ra, Flying Lotus, and Jack Davey on tracks like “Never Be The Same” and “Everything Ok”, giving the album a cosmic, cerebral, sound. Lest we forget, these collaborators had a hard time getting their major label records off the ground as well.
Despite being the work of many producers, the album does pack a unified sound, with many of the beats going to the far reaches of space, with hit or miss results. Taken as a whole, the album plays solidly throughout, but it doesn’t come without it’s head scratchers. “Hours”, for instance, is blunted exercise in redundancy that finds Blu reciting a Jay-Z verse almost word for word, while “Annie Hall” has some pretty horrendous guest verses. And strangely, one of the album’s least stellar beats is used twice, once on the album’s intro “Doin’ Nothing” and later on the posse cut outro “Doin’ Something”. That’s a good nine minutes of playtime for a lousy beat.
But NoYork! is meant to be taken as a whole, and in the right frame of mind, it plays through solidly. And there are a few excellent, stand out moments included. A rare appearance from Edan on “Ronald Morgan”, which truthfully packs the best verse on the album, making us wonder when Mr. Portnoy will return to hip-hop, while the excellent “Jazzmen” with Madlib whets our appetite for the duo’s ucla LP.
Also recorded in 2009, but unreleased until this point is Blu’s long-awaited reunion with Exile, Give Me My Flowers While I Can Smell Them. As to why this album was stuck in the vault for the last two years remains unknown. Perhaps Blu and Exile had some long-term strategy upon when to release it, or maybe they felt it didn’t live up to the standard of Below The Heavens, and never planned to release it. So that begs the question, does it hold that standard?
Give Me My Flowers While I Can Smell Them is Blu’s most contemporary hip-hop LP since his original debut with Exile, finding crate dug jazz-loops as the main backbone for the sound of the album. Like it’s predecessor, it finds Blu at his most introspective, as songs like “More Out Of Life” and “The Only One” trade No!York’s ultra-experimentalism for conventional self-examination. The album’s sound is unified, as even by it’s end, the duo hardly break their stride. The only misstep here is “John McCain”, an off kilter instrumental track that doesn’t fit with the rest of the LP.
Whether or not Give Me My Flowers… was intended as a true sequel to Below The Heavens remains unknown. The main difference between this LP and BTH is that this comes off as a much more scaled down version of it’s predecessor. While No!York is overproduced, this is almost under-produced, with many songs lacking hooks or heavily layered samples. True song structure is what made Below The Heavens so great, and that element is missing here.
Blu can probably tell you personally, that living up to the standard set by a classic album is tough. But given …Flowers... album’s low-key digital release, it’s clear that this was something recorded over a week or two, perhaps less. Even so, …Flowers… is easily Blu’s strongest project since he and Exile’s original, even if it does sound like somewhat of a rush job. So while No!York boasts bigger production, a heavy guest list and hooks a plenty, sometimes less is more.
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