Spotlight on: Blu – Good to be Home

I’ve been following Blu since way back in the MySpace days when he was just another rapper trying to be heard. The thing with Blu though is that it didn’t take long for that to happen. Not for any other reason other than the fact that he was good. Very good. He stood out in a sea of other young wannabe rappers. Many of whom were possibly in it, or trying to be in it for the wrong reasons. Blu could never have been accused of that. He didn’t follow trends or try to sound like anyone else. The honesty in his stories, the way he delivered them and his signature sound even back then made him a ready packaged product. I’m sure that is part of the reason why the types of rappers and producers gravitated towards him then and now.

Blu wouldn’t work with just anyone though and carved his way into the game as a young rapper and occasional beat maker working with not just the obvious in Exile, but artists like Detroit’s Ta’raach (or Lacks as he’s also known). Featuring on tracks with Ta’raach’s group The Fevers, then joining C.R.A.C Knuckles as well as working with producer Mainframe forming the crew Johnson and Johnson. He collaborated with respected artists like Big Tone, Cali rapper Co$$ and NY rapper Sene. These artists, along with a hand full of others, complemented Blu’s style beautifully and he knew it even back then. More recently he’s worked with a handful of current and prominent artists in the form of Knxwledge, Black Spade and Madlib. The support of individual like Madlib is praise indeed and cements Blu’s position in the game as someone not to be overlooked.

Blu and artists like him definitely helped pave the way for the new generation of young rappers today. Thankfully showing that you don’t have to regurgitate someone else’s style in order to be heard and in fact, you probably shouldn’t.

Blu’s new album Good To Be Home is his ode to the West Coast. Almost every featuring artist on the album resides in the West as does the one and only producer on the album – Bombay. On top of that, and in a round about way, the album as a whole has a West Coast vibe although maybe not in a G-Funk type of way (although the last track on the album The West Part Two must be a nod to that era) but a vibe leaning more towards a West Coast lowrider oldies feel.

I’m sure people will instantly compare Good To Be Home to Blu and Exiles 2007 release Below the Heavens simply because they seem to be his two most official albums to date. I’m not sure that comparing this album at all to previous releases is useful though. Although if I had to I’d say it fares more closely to certain tracks from UCLA with Madlib, Give Me Flowers with Exile or even theGODleeBarnes LP especially in terms of production.

Because Exile and Bombay have totally different styles – Exile’s is cleaner, playful and regimented, Bombays raw, loose and lo-fi – they’re naturally going to be very different albums. Maybe this is an instinctive progression for Blu after the days of him utilising very structured, clinical and methodical beats laced with happy R’n’B choruses. Below The Heavens being the main example.

Speaking of R’n’B choruses (which I have nothing against) one of my main gripes with the new album is the completely unnecessary and at times unsuitable vocal additions. This is the case in my opinion on the first track Home where the almost whiny and completely out of the ‘blu’ female vocals come in on what was otherwise a perfect start to an album. The same occurs on the otherwise incredible The Return and He Man. I almost fell off my chair when I first heard that track (He Man). The instantly recognisable sample from the beautiful I Just Want to Be There by The Independents is enough to almost guarantee a winning song with Blu’s accompaniment. To be fair Bombay doesn’t really do much to the original track production-wise but he gets away with it on this one. It’s definitely a case of less is more. Something thankfully Bombay acknowledges and utilises across the majority of his production on the album. There’s enough in a few simple loops taken from the track to create the beat especially with Blu’s contribution, which again is why it’s such a shame to have it broken up by another needless vocal chorus that doesn’t quite seem to fit. If it’s a strong beat just let it play I say. Give it some space to breathe.

Before this release Bombay was fairly unknown even to the subterranean hip-hop masses. I only now realise it was him I had been listening to some years ago by somehow stumbling upon a tape of his called The Show Is Over from 2011.

For me the production is what makes Good To Be Home what it is. The fact that Blu fits the production style so perfectly and his rhymes are generally faultless with the odd exception is obviously a bonus. It’s a package. A generally happy marriage with the odd natural fall out.

The feel good songs on this album really are just that. Feel good! The type of production on Home, Back Home Again, Whip Creme, The 50z, Child Support, He Man and Brown Sugar have that pulled heartstrings type of feel, essentially thanks to Bombays obvious love for 60’s and 70’s soul music. You’re on to a winner if you can sample artists like The Moments, The Independents and The Four Sonics effectively the way he did.

Beats like The Return give you that disgusted screwed up (in a good way) face that you just cant help as soon as the strings hit.

I feel like the production and in hand the whole album falls off a little unfortunately though after The La. Directly after in fact with the following track Summer Time taking samples from the massively overused Kool and The Gangs Summer Madness. The track is completely unoriginal, messy and just seems like a bit of a struggle start to finish. The following few tracks also feel like fillers or at best bad interludes followed by another obvious sample choice in the second half of The Summer taking sections from Gil Scott-Herons Angel Dust.

For me things pick up again where The La left off at Red and Gold with more of that sweet soul and raw raps. Always a beautiful combination. The production on Well Fare reminds me of some older Blu tracks like Vanity and Amnesia. Actually this is the first point in the album that I see a real comparison between Blu and Exile and Blu and Bombay. It sounds like it would have worked perfectly on Blu and Ex’s Give Me Flowers or the Maybe One Day EP. It might be the more prominent drums, strings and keys that give it a jazzier, more heavily produced feel over the majority of the others on the album.

The final instrumental track on the album again like Summer Time sticks out like a sore thumb but in this case it really works. It’s a ride out track and in the most literal sense. It really feels like the end of the album and Blu and Bombay have stuck the tape in the lowrider stereo and are rolling out in the L.A heat with the top down.

Blu definitely does his thing on the album lyrically. Riding each and every beat change perfectly and holding on nicely where things become more difficult.

The problems start to arise though at times when certain featuring artists contribute. Although Blu has always been good at choosing who he works with I think he took a bit of a chance on this one. For me, unlike any of his past offerings there are too many tracks with features here. On his own he’s great at creating a vibe or following one according to the beat and maintaining it throughout. Blu kills it on tracks like The 50z starting by saying “This is not a love song” knowing that that’s exactly how it feels instantly and he retains that feeling throughout. The same with The Return. Blu compliments the strings perfectly on this track creating something of a sense of danger and mystery. Telling a story of his struggles growing up in LA. Lines like: Feels all good in the hood, I know it ain’t. Shit be smelling all good, I know it stink” and “What you do when your name is Blu and you run into a crip, a cholo, a piru? And everybody wanna know on the coast, what set you claim. All my life I had that name, but never banged” is Blu’s way of saying everything is not as it seems from the outside and that it’s not all sunshine and palm trees in the city of Los Angeles. Especially growing up with such a provocative name in a city known for it’s gang culture.

There are occasions here and there where the collaborations work well though and for me it’s where solid, tried and tested rappers have their involvement. The likes of Prodigy of Mobb Deep, MED, LMNO, Oh-No, Planet Asia, Evidence and Phil Da Agony for example. They know how to keep the momentum and emotion in a song regardless of who has been on the mic before or after them. Even Fashawn and Pac Div complement Blu beautifully on the pimped out Boyz N The Hood.

In the second half of The Summer though we have an example of some of the weakest content on the entire album. LMNO is surprisingly only good at best followed by 2Mex really saying nothing at all and finally Imani of the iconic Pharcyde sounding like he’s struggling to even stay in time let alone say anything of relevance in any kind of captivating manor. Its obvious that Blu wanted the involvement of artists from the West and the idea of featuring artists like Imani is great but in practice their presence alone just isn’t enough.

It’s not all bad though. A great example of a collaborative track working incredibly well is Red On Gold with Prodigy, Mitchy Slick and a personal favourite of mine Phil Da Agony. Phil is in his absolute element on beats like this. Some of my favourite verses of his are on the similar sounding soul laced Madlib produced album, Strong Arm Steady’s In Search Of Stoney Jackson where we hear the same energy and conviction layed out on each and every track.

We all know Blu for diverging and not sticking to the script. He’s known for being spontaneous and for dropping mixtapes or even full albums from absolutely nowhere without much regard for the sound quality or direction of the previous release. Surely this is a good thing though? It’s sad that people have come to expect a certain sound from Blu as an artist. The beautiful thing about anyone with talent is to see exactly that from all angles. I really don’t think Blu is worried about anyones opinion though and I’m sure the fact that he has a coherent album release in Good To Be Home has nothing to do with people upset around his spontaneous and erratic distribution of previous mixtapes and single releases.

I hope to see more work from Blu and Bombay as a rapper-producer team in the future. Something else I really hope to see is the instrumental album to becoming available at some point too. I think the beats alone definitely deserve to see the light of day.

Apart from the occasional weaker moment I love the album as a general body of work. Not to mention the aesthetically pleasing qualities with perfectly correlating album artwork by Joseph Martinez.

You can grab Good To Be Home now on 2 CD, 2 LP or double cassette from Fat Beats and Nature Sounds.

Words: Tom Dyer of Acorn Tapes

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