Paul Thompson’s doctor is Bill Murray.
The hero’s story seldom changes. Whether it’s Jean Valjean or Brett Favre in Wranglers, our heroes follow the same trajectory. You might not be able to rattle off the important steps of your favorite stories, but you know them when you see them: Leo entering the police academy in The Departed is no different from Elle Woods hitting Harvard in Legally Blonde. Walter White toting automatic weapons back to Albuquerque is just Simba reclaiming Pride Rock.
There’s an important step in this journey, and it’s called ‘the refusal of the call’. If the hero is too eager to tackle the problem at hand, we lose interest. Hands, after all, need to be wrung. This doesn’t last too long—the quest is bigger than the man himself, and to refuse forever would be to shrug off destiny. And who would do that?
Blu would. Rap is always looking for heroes, but they’re usually built from the ground up: Illmatic and good kid, m.A.A.d. city were no more debuts than they were long-awaited coronations. Johnson Barnes had no such luxury—he was thrown unceremoniously into the messiah’s seat. When the then-twenty-four-year-old’s Below The Heavens surfaced in the middle of 2007, it caught fire. The Exile-produced LP is an earnest, youthful, often brilliant take on boom-bap formalism. Blu was touted as the next in a never-ending line of ‘saviors’ for the West coast, largely because he could pass as a New Yorker. Heavens made every year-end list in sight. The sky was the limit.
Instead, Blu has been refusing the call going on six years. Since Heavens, he has flooded the internet with minor, increasingly bizarre side projects: the low-stakes and decidedly Los Angeles Johnson & Jonson; a heady, movie-clip-laden EP called Herfavoritecolo(u)r; singular and static-drowned EP J e s u s; and UCLA, presented by Blu as a collaboration with Madlib, who publicly distanced himself from the project.
The two most notable records from the Los Angeles native are a pair of aborted efforts. His would-be Warner debut NoYork! was first mired in label hell, then passed out at festivals by Blu himself. Then, at the end of 2011, the long-awaited Exile reunion—the mirage in the distance for those turned off by Blu’s experimentation—was dumped on the internet unceremoniously as Give Me My Flowers While I Can Smell Them.
None of these projects are perfect, but each is distinctly its own: J e s u s sizzles and pops like a cassette in an overheated Cadillac, circa July 1992. NoYork! takes cues from electronic music; Flowers is the quintessential headphone record. There are some common threads, though. The writing, while different from record to record, is dense, even impenetrable. More famously, the sound quality of these records is always questionable, often distractingly so. The fidelity issues dominate the reaction to every new release now, only giving way to cries for a proper sequel to Below The Heavens. In short, Blu spat in the face of everything that made him the heir to so many imaginary thrones.
But lost in the cowardly threats and hideous cruelty is Blu’s finest work: theGODleebarnes(lp). Released as a single, seventy-minute mp3 file on his Myspace page, the album came and went with little fanfare. Blu posted a track breakdown, and some enterprising souls took it upon themselves to split up the file, but it was too little, too late. That’s a shame, because amidst the static and distortion is one of the best rap records of the last half-decade.
Almost entirely self-produced, Godleebarnes is dynamic yet focused, with Blu emerging as an auteur. The instrumentals cover a lot of ground; “Glory Us Deluxe” is as sleepy and contemplative as “Spanish Winter” is frantic and uncompromising. There are vocal samples that crackle like old records, an effect only amplified by the album’s spotty quality. Songs like “Be Go(o)d!”, “On Mars With The Stars”, and “Difficulties” are superbly soulful. But their warmth is matched by the grim resolve of “Til We Die” or the smugly victorious “Crowns”—the album is so sonically in-balanced that it feels narrow on a first pass.
It’s anything but. Godleebarnes traces long, snaking lines from a childhood through to an imagined death, then takes great pains to blur those lines until they’re unrecognizable. Early in the album, on “Never Dream”, Blu recalls how he “used to shoot the shit with the Crips and the Bloods/funny thing about it is I didn’t know they was/told them they was gods, ‘cause they didn’t know they was”. Selflessness like this is usually rewarded, and the production seems to follow suit: the next song, “The Gods & Me”, is a summery, lighthearted affair. (The only thing bothering Blu is that “y’all all hate us like we all Lakers”.) But halfway through, he rattles the cage a bit. “Style support/no child by twenty-five/no smile, ‘cause I aborted four by the age of twenty-four.” Yet the mood never changes; Blu is still smiling and Southern California is still sunny. Some hero.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Throughout the album, Blu’s moods shift rapidly, while the subject matter rushes to catch up. The two elements are often at odds, and it’s fascinating to watch—especially from such an emotionally intelligent writer. Back-to-back cuts “City of Los(t) Angel(e)s” and “All The King’s Men” deal with the same twenty-something existential angst, and the instrumentals strike different tones. But on “City”, the bleak atmosphere and barbs at his hometown hear him content, even proud. On the other hand, “King’s Men” presents itself as a happy-enough ode to domesticity, only for Blu to approach it as a funeral march. “Where did love go?/we want more.”
Like always, Blu is at his best when he’s carefully perfecting his swagger in the mirror. Half his gangbanging father and half his preacher stepfather, he can be effortlessly cool or painfully out of place, sometimes in the same verse. On “A World Gone Blind”, his mother asks him “’what you wanna be, boy?’/I said ‘a b-boy”, only to turn around and mutter, “my grandfather turned eighty-nine last week/blind out of one eye and still sees peace”.
In truth, it’s this—Blu’s refusal to take profound discussions out of their mundane contexts—that makes Godleebarnes hit so hard. There are celebrated books and plays about race that fail to say as much as he does with two lines on “Crowns”: “picking cotton was the easiest job I’ve ever gotten/it’s like throwing products in a shopping bag”. We might live to be eighty-nine like Blu’s grandpa and still not hear every rap song about being broke, but how many are framed as frantic struggles (“Grandma’s Kitchen”) to find a place to fuck a girl?
For such a long album, Godleebarnes is remarkably airtight. The thematic ebb and flow is mirrored in the album’s structure, with short cuts like “The Run Out(erlude)” stitching together the weightier material. The guest features are uniformly great: Sene impresses in his two turns, and Co$$ makes a case for himself in the Best Supporting category, with three superb verses and a solo cut of his own. But make no mistake, this is Blu’s party.
And it is a party. By the time the one-song encore “My Boy Blu” rolls around, we’ve learned all we need to know about the man. There are biographical details, sure, but Godleebarnes is remarkable for how closely it ferries the listener through Blu’s emotional ups and downs. This is the rare album that is both exhausting and addictive; it’s an odyssey you want to relive over and over again. Blu must know this, as he adds—presumably with a bottle of champagne and a couple of models in hand: “world travelling/came back with the same accent/Cali out of me? It can’t happen”. The hero returns.
ZIP: Blu – theGODleeBarnes (lp)