Saturday, May 31, 2014

album review: 'good to be home' by blu

The more I think about it, the more grateful I am that The Alchemist and Evidence dropped the excellent album Lord Steppington very early in the year. See, I'll admit that it's been a learning process for me to discover more acts in the hip-hop underground, and considering they brought on so many names onto that record to collaborate, I got a sampler of a whole selection of artists I might not have heard before. And considering most of them delivered solid lyrics, it definitely got me interested in future projects.

The first one that jumped out at me was Styles P's last album, which was pretty solid, but he was coming from gangsta rap of which I was at least somewhat familiar. But Blu was a different act entirely - originally debuting the mid-2000s with the extremely solid Below The Heavens and inspired by both gangsta and conscious rap with a hint of a Christian angle, Blu's jagged career trajectory has been interesting, if a little concerning for his fanbase. Between the No!York release which came just after his very brief tenure with Warner Records and a selection of EPs and projects that really were a mixed bag, I wasn't sure what I was going to be getting with his newest album, especially because I didn't really like his verse on his track on Lord Steppington, 'Tomorrow'. Admittedly, part of the problem was the beat on that track, but Blu's verse wasn't all that stellar and I wasn't impressed with his flow.

That said, I wasn't about to ignore his new album Good To Be Home, half because the collaboration list looked pretty impressive. Not only was a double disk with collaborations with The Alchemist and Evidence and Fashawn, but LMNO was also reportedly on the album as well, whose album After The Fact was one of my favourite hip-hop releases of last year. And I figured, hey, with such a rich list of collaborators, it'd probably be pretty interesting, right?

Well, yeah, the album is definitely interesting. That's slightly different than being great, though, and in comparison with some of Blu's other projects, while I enjoyed this album, I don't quite love it. And honestly, it's for reasons that I wasn't expecting, especially when covering an underground rap release. Now let me stress that Good To Be Home by Blu is definitely still a success in what it's trying to do, but at the same time, that narrow focus might be a contributing factor to why I don't quite all out love this record, if that makes any sense.

And here's the funny thing: for a rap album with this many collaborations, I can only think of maybe two verses I didn't altogether like. The lack of huge names from the mainstream gives Blu the chance to overload this record with underground spitters with vastly different flows and styles, and the extreme majority of them brought their A-game. For the most part, this is far from a bad thing, as we get great flows from Svt Pea, Mitchy Slick, Tristate, and Krondon, and some pretty intriguing and descriptive wordplay from Evidence, Mic Holden, and Fashawn. For me, the definite standouts were Definite's two verses for their directness and hard flow, LMNO's methodical yet deftly intelligent poetry, and Chace Infinite... holy shit, that dude's wordplay is goddamn superb. Some research tells me he was the rapping half of the duo Self Scientific with DJ Khalil, but that dude needs to sit down and make a solo album of his own, I'd listen to the hell out of that!

Now you've probably noticed that I haven't talked much about Blu yet - and that's not saying his verses are bad, because they definitely aren't, but that's the risk you run when you overload your album with great rappers, you run the risk of getting overshadowed - which unfortunately happens here more often than it really should. Fortunately, Blu does step up to the microphone on his solo tracks, and brings a lot of great wordplay to the table that I did enjoy, most of which surrounds the primary theme of this album: a full-length love letter to late-80s, very early 90s West Coast rap. And Blu does a lot to capture many of the distinctive flavours of that time period lyrically with an ease and comfort comes together pretty effectively, especially on the DJ Jazzy Jeff-inspired Summer Time. From there, we get a wide platter of gangsta rap, laid-back bragging, frustrations with women, and even the fascinating and very visceral political moment in 'The LA'. One of the more interesting elements I did appreciate was that unlike more mainstream west coast gangsta rap like from YG, Blu shows the bloody consequences of gang violence, and how just by his name being what it is, he gets dragged back into it. However, the one track that surprisingly stuck with me was 'He-Man', a track about a relationship gone wrong, and yet it's painted with enough nuance to show his awareness of both of their faults and how they got into the relationship for the wrong reasons. It's one of the few moments of the album that ring as really personal for me - which is frustrating, because Blu's really damn good at it. What more is that for as good of a descriptive poet as he is, I don't always feel his emotional connection to his words - he paints a vivid picture, but I don't always feel as gripped as I'd like because he doesn't always frame himself as being directly affected - which, to be fair, makes a bit of sense. Blu begins the album flying home and trying to recapture those old memories, and it kind of makes sense that he feels separate from it now. Granted, that's only implied subtext and is never outright stated on the album, but it definitely fits in context.

Granted, part of that context comes from the instrumentation, which also does plenty to define the album's sound, as it's decidedly lo-fi. The soul and jazz samples feel filtered through a crackle of static and grit, and given that the entire album is courtesy of producer Bombay, it lends the album a lot of atmosphere. That's not saying that the beats were always to my taste - I felt the vocal samples could sometimes get a little shrill and grating, and I'm not sure Bombay switched up his production enough to make all of the beats distinctive and memorable, but there were moments that stuck with me. I liked the both of the instrumental pieces, 'Back Home Again' and 'The West (Part Two)', I liked the seedy groove of 'The West', and the slick vibes of 'Red & Gold' and 'Summer Time'. And the most ambitious sampling, most notably on 'Child Support' and 'The LA' were moments where Bombay got close to Madlib-levels of sample-juxtaposition.

But here's where we run into the biggest issue of the album: the production. Not the lo-fi sound, let me stress this, but the levels and the mastering, because it was wildly inconsistent across this entire album. The bass or percussion felt painfully underweight at points, the backing vocals either felt too loud or not loud enough, and the volumes and mastering on the beats never felt of consistent quality. Now normally in this case, I'd place the blame on the producer for not giving the record that sense of flow, but this is Blu we're talking about, and he has built an unfortunate reputation for releasing records that have mastering issues and sound defiantly unfinished. And for the most part, I don't mind this choice to go for that aesthetic - Blu's clearly trying to imitate the choppy qualities you'd find on the tapes of that era - but at the same time, when you have producers like Madlib able to call back to that style and yet still preserve a consistent production quality, even with older samples, these discrepancies get frustrating. 

But either way, the more I listen to Good To Be Home, the more I really like it. Do I wish Blu had gone a little more introspective with some of these songs? Yes, but with wordplay this varied and colourful, it manages to elevate the simpler subject matter into something pretty damn exceptional. All of the rappers deliver solid rhymes, and while I wasn't the biggest fan of 'Wel Fare' and 'Whip Creme' - mostly because I don't really care for that subject matter - I can't deny that this record succeeds in what it's trying to be. So on that note... you know, I'll round up to an 8/10 and a solid recommendation. If you've got a passion for lo-fi rap music with a ton of talent, put this record on. It's not quite as good as Below The Heavens, an album that'll likely hang over Blu for the rest of his career, but it's still damn solid all the same, and definitely worth you time.

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