Revisiting his excessively solid debut Below the Heavens, Blu’s most apparent strength as a rapper is his clarity. The album can seem like a book of essays: Blu’s lucid thoughts flow freely but logically from his head: his qualms about fatherhood, his careful and subversive career aspirations, and his relationship to the long and diverse class history of hip-hop music are all communicated directly to the listener from the first listen. Consider that he does so over traditionalist hip-hop beats without sounding preachy and with an intricate and listenable flow, and you will realize why heads still cite Below the Heavens as a debut to be imitated.
It is surprising, then, to hear Blu’s voice often distorted, buried, and altogether obscured on York, the now reissued album that first made its way to fans when Blu handed free copies to concert goers in the summer of 2011. Blu has gotten cryptic and cagey, often favoring punchline oriented bars over readably narrative ones: “Somethin’ wrong, young tongue hung like drawers: laundry / Be Kind Rewind, Sunshine: Gondry”. When he’s not being smarmy, he’s spitting platitudes, references to history, or just boastful nonsense (“Feelin’ like the next Swizz Beatz”). It’s a reasonable conclusion that Blu’s lyrical cup simply didn’t overflow like it did on Heavens, especially given the sheer number of features on this album. The album contains rapping from nineteen other rappers, seemingly random choices, from U-God to Pac Div.
It is, however, these features and the album’s production that are largely responsible for a cohesive and entirely pleasant and immersive listen. Each featured performer slides into his or her verse with humility and care for the whole. The album’s final track contains verses from some seven different rappers, yet maintains a high level of tension and interest throughout.
Indeed, the album has a pleasantly logical and symmetrical layout, beginning and ending with the same beat by Flying Lotus on the singular opener “Doin Nothin” and posse cut closer “Doin Somethin”. Production is grouped by producer, beats from Flylo, Samiyam, Dibia$e, Daedelus, Exile, Shafiq Husayn, and Knxwledge roughly progressing in couples of two songs per producer. The album begins with Lotus’ mind bending obtuseness and procedes to move through each producer’s distinctive style, from high energy old school rhythms to neo-soul interludes to chiptune inspired off-kilter stutter beats. While Blu may no longer be at peak of his lyrical poignancy, it seems that York at least presents still maintains a singular voice, just via a new and more nebulous form.