Completely foregoing quality control, Blu has released a new album this year, Cheetah in the City. I remind everyone that this follows four EPs, each with different producers: Creenshaw Jezebel (with Ray West), LA Counting (with Union Analogtronics, basically a glorified pre-release single for this album), Titans in the Flesh (with Nottz) and Open Your Optics to Optimism (with Fate).
For the uninitiated, Blu first made waves in the underground with 2007’s Below the Heavens which won him a major record deal with Warner Bros. But since then, his discography has only been a confusing series of labyrinthine turns. There was UCLA, a collection of Madlib beats that Madlib denies having produced. There was Give Me My Flowers While I Can Smell Them, the long-awaited follow-up to Below the Heavens hat was sat on for two years and was released unceremoniously in an unmastered form on Blu’s bandcamp page (forever obscuring some great songs like “I Am Jean” in the process, whose choppy piano and excellent jazz bass could stand up to similar tracks by Digable Planets). And Blu himself handed out physical copies of NoYork! that resulted in him being dropped by Warner Bros, and the album eventually came out a few years later in a slightly altered form. And that’s just scratching the surface.
For those curious, Below the Heavens is the best starting point in his discography, where you’ll be met with a collection of hard beats and hard rhymes from two relative newcomers who sounded hungrier then than ever (a representative cut: “My World Is…”, which opens with a tasteful sample from Joni Mitchell’s Blue like it were Blu’s calling card, and nabs a great bassline from a Dells song). Elsewhere, you have NoYork!, which sees a West Coast rapper teaming up with Flying Lotus and Knxwledge four years before Kendrick would do the same on To Pimp a Butterfly. That album was a glorious mess of fancy cocktails and cheap weed (a representative cut: “Hours,” which has a video-game like groove to it). And 2015 had the slept-on Bad Neighbor, a collection of indoorsy and hazy Madlib beats (a representative cut: “Drive In,” featuring one of the most playful beats I’ve ever heard from Madlib – and that’s saying a lot). All three of these albums are completely different from one another, demonstrating Blu’s diverse ear for beats.
All that being said, Blu hasn’t made anything notable by himself since 2011 (the aforementioned Bad Neighbor had him sharing mic time with the dullard M.E.D. and Good to be Home, the double album of 2014, was a sleeping pill of “consistency”). Part of the reason is because he hasn’t sounded as impressive as he did back in 2007; his voice has gotten more cadence-less over the years, which means that he’s become increasing reliant on his beats. So while I was excited for this one, I also approached it with trepidation: it’s no surprise that Blu’s best tracks are the ones where he’s backed up by the best producers: Madlib, Flying Lotus, Daedelus, Knxwledge, Nottz, Exile. Union Analogtronics, a French production duo who produces the entirety of Cheetah, popped up in 2012 for an underwhelming debut album that included features from heavy-hitters like Elzhi, Guilty Simpson, Talib Kweli and MF DOOM and have disappeared off the map until now.
Unsurprisingly, given both artists’ histories, Cheetah in the City is a mixed bag. But what I’m most surprised by is how Union try to re-create the busy electronic world of NoYork! here, evidenced from the opener/EP main attraction “LA Counting,” although this one’s slightly calmer and has a more straight-forward hook. And throughout the album, a handful of songs constantly leave you guessing in terms of song structure: “City Dreams” brings out a cascading coda just when you think it’s about to end; “Cheetah” goes through several complete shifts, even if not every part is successful; “Sunny” ends in a drum freak-out. The latter-most is one of the album’s best, despite some questionable rapping (“[She] shaking with the boom boom / Hoping we can boom boom”); the sample of a woman singing “Don’t need sun” is actually, well, kind of sunny despite the words and despite the way Union constantly cut it up.
Like NoYork!, not everything works – that’s the case with this sort of approach: some beats are too stilted (ie. “Whatever”); others are too busy for their own good (ie. “Sleepin’” and “Workin’”, with the annoying high-pitched “hook”); I can’t help but think what a less generic vocalist would have done on “City Dreams”.
But like NoYork!, there’s plenty to enjoy: Dam-Funk contributes on the playful groove “Don’t Trip”, and it’s a much more natural collaboration than “Peroxide” on Bad Neighbor; Erik Riko channels Bilal on A Love Surreal on closer “The Factory”; the bass-line of “One Two” is strong and kinetic enough to carry the five minute track on its own. Despite all the electronics though, Blu has always been a traditionalist at heart, and that’s never better seen than on “Weekends”, where Union bring in some twinkly keyboards throughout and a sombre horn melody to distinguish Blu’s choruses (like how everything clears away and the horn melody switches for the bridge); it’s the only song on the album that readily qualifies as beautiful.
The term “defiantly underground” comes to mind when thinking about Blu; every time he makes a move that could increase or appease his fan base, there seems to be two deliberate steps back. It’s unclear to me why Blu thinks he needed to release so much in one year when there’s great buried in the five releases he’s given us so far; I can think of a few hip-hop artists that this criticism can be leveraged towards. And it’s similarly unclear to me why he’s recently decided that every song on every album/EP must be by the same producer when a revolving door of beat-makers would have only added some much needed breathing room to this particular one. Problematic as always; I can’t say I expected anything less.