Monday, March 18, 2019

album review: 'a long red hot los angeles summer night' by blu & oh no

You ever have those rappers where for as much you like them they frustrate the hell out of you, an artist you know is fully capable of delivering brilliance but can meander down weird paths that are far less potent than they should be.

Yeah, unsurprising to anyone Blu is in that camp for me - and to some extent, given his comprehensive discography and array of collaborations, I'd argue at this point the biggest issue is quality control. Because when Blu is focused and chooses to refine a project, we get near-classics like Below The Heavens with stellar production and really potent rapping. On the flip side, for as great of a rapper as Blu is with a taste for weirder production, the fact that he doesn't have more projects I'd consider classics is alarming, especially when said production feels compromised or messy and from people you'd expect better. As much as I still like 2014's Good To Be Home and some of his scattered EPs, I can't deny a few of the mixing and mastering questions, and I stand behind the criticisms I had of 2015's Bad Neighbor with M.E.D. and Madlib - I'm still a little in awe that Madlib delivered such a slapdash project, he's a much better producer than that project indicates. Granted, there's been rumors that Blu's relationship with Madlib has been contentious for years so who the hell knows what might have gone on behind the scenes - but when I heard that Blu was teaming up with producer Oh No and had won back some critical acclaim with another 'back-to-basics' project, I was reassured. Hell, people were saying that Good To Be Home was a trial run in comparison with this, so let's not waste time: what did we get from A Long Red Hot Los Angeles Summer Night?

So I'll be honest: this is the sort of project that puts me in a bit of an odd situation, because it's deliberately calling back to an era and tone of West Coast hip-hop I'm inclined to like with dense flows and production, all to serve a conventional but colourful narrative structure that shows more polish than I've expected from Blu, although not short of ambition. But when you link your story to more of a narrative like this, you can't really avoid the questions that come with it, and for as much as Blu is looking to entrench his storytelling amidst The Chronic and good kid, m.A.A.d city, if I'm being brutally honest I'd argue this might even fall short of Good To Be Home - not bad by any means, but not nearly as hard-hitting as I was hoping, even if the production might sound more lush. 

In fact, let's start with that narrative, because while it is loose it does provide enough continuity from song to song, and it's territory that's been pretty well-trod before: Blu is flexing and fooling around, he draws some unwelcome attention as he picks up some companionship for the night, he gets robbed blind, and then enacts some bloody revenge for which he's then arrested and sent to jail - only to have his bail get posted and he's back to do it all again, all set against the stylized neon of a Los Angeles summer night. It's a story playing in broad, bloody strokes and melodrama, so it might not be exactly surprising that despite the frenetic wordplay it's more about painting a picture than adding insight or deeper layers of subtext - many have described this album might even play more like a film, and I can definitely hear the fast-talking cinematic scope of the style and violence. Hell, I'll even give Blu props for keeping certain guest artists as characters in his narrative, with M.E.D., Cashus King, Definite, and Donel Smokes serving as his friends that help plan the revenge - and here's where we encounter the first hint of a problem, because for as conventional as a narrative as this might be, it seems like we're missing pretty obvious chances to amplify the subtext and drama - hell, the closest we get to any of Blu's crew questioning his bloody revenge plans comes on 'Stalkers', and even then it's more about reinforcement that actual conflict, and that's before Blu decides to drop a homophobic slur that might be about the last part of the throwback vibe to that era to emulate.

And yet when you start reading between the lines, it's hard to avoid questions I think Blu would rather you not think about that hard. It might be a minor nitpick to note how the only place women show up in this story at all is either as eye candy or duplicitous scammers, which wouldn't be as much of an issue in a world where Kendrick and Lil Wayne didn't create the masterclass of that kind of song on 'Mona Lisa' last year, but what gets a little more alarming is 'Murder Case', which opens with an homage to 'Murder Was The Case' by Snoop Dogg and then proceeds to highlight all the ways that Blu as the protagonist could be innocent, from the systemic issues that might operate as contributing factors to corrupt police trying to restrain him, from the hypocritical enforcement of self-defense laws to the possibility he was even framed - all of which would feel like very valid points if they weren't following a song where he was very clearly apprehended after the crime was committed! So are we not supposed to see connective tissue between songs for this narrative, or is this just highlighting the defenses that can be used by others but given Blu's position opposite the L.A.P.D. he is not afforded? It's not like songs like 'It Never Rains In South L.A.' don't highlight systemic failings - but it does get harder to sympathize when you get songs like 'Pop Shots' where the justification of betrayal starts to seem increasingly flimsy, or going a step further to 'Do The Crime', where not only does he kill his target, but also all the target's friends and when he sets the house on fire, his target's girl as well. So okay, maybe the larger point is more about highlighting the systemic cycle of violence within L.A. - the city is as much of a character as all the MCs here, and that would fit with the final song 'Fresh Out' showing Blu ready to begin the cycle all over again... but the subtext and commentary that would be the natural extension seems strangely absent, asking the audience to make a leap that's feels oddly unsupported in comparison with how, say, Vince Staples layered it into the subtext on FM!. But then again, that project was trying for an urgency in its storytelling that A Long Red Hot Los Angeles Summer Night really isn't - this is more laid-back, a callback to an era where the flash and flair of the past didn't demand the questions in favour of cultivating the vibe. And sure, there's a place for that - I'd argue my favourite YG album Stay Brazy took a lot of that tactic - but YG has never been the same sort of lyricist as Blu is, and for as much as this project wants to land as a deep-seated tribute to the west... I already have Good To Be Home, which was aiming a fair bit higher than this.

And look, I know how that looks: of course I'm going to be the one who prefers the dusty, lo-fi, lyrical double album in comparison with the slicker, tighter, more eminently accessible project, but the truth is that if there's one thing that really saves this album for me, it's Oh No's production! Well, okay, that's not quite fair - every MC that Blu brings on-board to this album delivers a solid verse, with the highlights for me coming from both TriState and Montage One on 'The Robbery', really good back-and-forth interplay on 'Liquor Store', and especially from Carl Roe and LocalBlac on 'Jail Cypher'. Hell, even despite some questionable dropped rhymes, I'd argue Blu's on his game here too as well - there's a ton of flair and internal structure to 'The Lost Angels Anthem', 'It Never Rains In South L.A.', But if I'm being brutally honest, it's Oh No's lush, crystal clear West Coast grooves and texture spanning g-funk, west-coast boom bap, and jazz that's what pulls me back, all infused with a frenetic energy that never once flags. Hell, for once you can make the argument that Blu has some real hooks this time around, from Kezia's cooing off the dense energy of 'The Lost Angels Anthem' to Oh No's own additions on 'Pop Shots'. And when you pair it with the bombastic squonk of the horns and sharp pianos on 'Round Bout Midnight', the shuddering synths and jingling knock of 'Boogie to Flex', the prominent chill flutes and cascades in 'Champagne' that makes the most of the abrupt flip into the seething guitar and synth touches around 'The Robbery', and the frenetic horn-infused jazz of 'Liquor Store' and 'Made The Call', there's a ton of in-your-face style on display. Hell, you could make the argument that there are songs that might even be a bit too dense, like the jittery cascades of snares and pianos on the hook of 'Straight No Chaser' or that synth slathered onto 'Do The Crime', but I think if I was to take an issue with the production, it's more that the vibe and tone doesn't really show much variation - a lot of clean flair and style and gloss, but not a lot of depth; hell, even the songs that are supposed to sound darker or more sultry don't quite nail the mood.

But again, I'm finding myself looking for subtlety and complexity when with every listen I'm realizing that's not really the point: if anything, what Blu and Oh No are trying to create is a west coast 90s gangsta b-movie, where there's probably good performances and a lot of style, but everything is a little broad and oversold, and the plot is about the furthest thing from the point. And while I will say Blu's delivered more emotional depth and complexity before, this is a project more comfortable indulging the familiar, for better or worse. It's a fun nostalgia trip with modern trappings, and while Blu can do better, this is still fine enough, netting a light 7/10 from me and recommended for those who are looking for something flashy from the west coast in both production and lyrical flair. I do hope Blu might be able to bring back the insight and greater experimentation sometime soon, but in the mean time... eh, it's fine enough, I'll take it.

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