As much a reaction to the critical success of Below the Heavens (this is perhaps one of the most left-field turns in the history of hip-hop pre-Yeezus) as it is a reaction to major records (this is perhaps one of the oddest mixtape-to-major label debuts in the history of hip-hop) as it is a reaction to Los Angeles and California as a whole. This sounds like someone took an entire street’s worth of hip bars with old arcade consoles in the back, clubs that refuse to play anything remotely club-like and classy jazz lounges with beer that costs two-digits minimum and threw it all into a blender and sprinkled it with a hint of marijuana before serving. Fucking impregnable, is what this sounds like. The closing dialogue of “Hours” – “‘That doesn’t even fit the song!’ ‘What is the song though?’ ‘I’m still trying to figure it out!'” – is what this sounds like.
Sure, at 17 songs, not everything works. Actually, the album’s most mediocre moments are when it is at its least chaotic: I’m sitting here wishing there was something filling in the empty spaces of “Above Crenshaw,” or that the vocal sample wasn’t so overused on “Down Earth”; the minute-long and riff-centric “Jazmine” isn’t anything except a palette cleanser. And Flying Lotus’ beat on closer “Doin’ Something” (which is the same on “Doin’ Nothing,” which also ain’t much beyond “Karma suited for kamasutras”) isn’t enough to carry the 6-minute west coast gathering. Elsewhere, long-time collaborator Exile should have emphasized the orchestral touches obscured in “Tags.”
But there are plenty of highlights. Flying Lotus’ other offering, “Everything’s OK,” has the most direct hook on the album, and Blu sounds like he’s trapped in an epilepsy-causing video game, with high-speed synthesizers, splattering drums and lasers coming from every direction. The Madlib-produced “Jazzmen” is worth it just for the stretch starting at the 1:40 mark where a jazzy trumpet shines despite being buried underneath Blu’s rapping and a hyperactive keyboard, and “SLNGBNGrs” is worth it just to hear the conclusion where its barely-hinged beat unravels completely. Daedelus’ “Hours” is the album’s most amicable groove, “My Sunshine” has a nice bass line, and “Keep Ush Inn” has a really gorgeous piano line that keeps falling off a cliff before reviving and starting again. And both Blu and the cadre of rappers he brings in throughout NoYork! do well, despite the beats’ overwhelming nature. I’m a fan of the various ladies on “Annie Hall”: “No, I’m not a box, but I do box steadily” and the run-through of games and gameshows on the second verse. But Blu really shines on his second verse of “Never Be the Same,” mostly relying on the same rhyme throughout the entire verse: “I’m sick of cruising around the town off this bus pass / I used to bust back when y’all was watching Rugrats / 5’10” pimp, growing out that little moustache / Watching sluts pass, wishing I could touch that.”
In an alternate universe where this didn’t have the awkward gestation that it did (ie. Blu releasing it himself with pirated copies that got him at a festival that resulted in him being dropped by Warner Bros. and the actual album not having a physical release until two years later in a slightly altered version), I’m sure more people would have jumped on this as a completely different and forward-looking frontier in hip-hop rather than a niche. Oh, well. His best album.