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Blu Colo(u)rs Outside the Lines

On the indie LA rapper’s subversive ‘Her Favorite Colo(u)r’

On September 15, 2022

Blu does not stop. He’s threatened to, at some point or another, mostly out of the kind of self-consciousness that gnaws at an artist’s brain when they’re scouted for greatness in their 20s and subsequently start wondering if they’ll run out of things to say by the time they hit 30. The 2007 Blu & Exile teamup, Below the Heavens, struck a chord with a once-dormant West Coast underground sound, minting one of the purest expressions of young, ferocious, perceptive hip-hop to emerge from SoCal since Freestyle Fellowship’s early ’90s colossal strides, drawing listeners in with the universal and then winning them with the personal.

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When a rapper’s debut hits that hard that early — especially when they have Illmatic and Ready to Die on the brain during its conception — the “what next” anxiety can come long before the “instant classic” designations can even get into your head. This is especially true if they’re as aware of all the hip-hop narratives as Blu is — and also if they’re hell-bent on defying them. Below the Heavens made him a cult sensation at 24, after years and years of stage-honed craft and self-assessment, and at the ideal time for a younger hip-hop audience to catch on. The late 2000s felt, in retrospect, like we were waiting for Kendrick: a mainstream-caliber rapper with equal knowledge of West Coast-rooted life, from gang culture to social justice to familial ties. And for a moment, it felt like Blu would be that star, the son of a preacher and stepson of a G who’d reconcile all the conflicts inside and outside of his head to find the unifying power of hip-hop as a confessional connection.

Yet since his initial emergence, Blu has operated like the fabled (and overstated) rap icon career route — legendary debut, mainstream stardom, then inevitable fall-off — which was its own hip-hop cliché to subvert. And subversion felt like his wheelhouse: For someone who initially appeared to be created wholesale from the hopes and dreams of Good Life Cafe patrons, Blu’s influences ran deeper, stranger and more versatile than any backpacker punchlines could ever chip away at. The album that first got him truly deep into writing raps as a teenager was DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, the ’98 maelstrom of anthemic aggression that informed Blu’s early attempts at a flow before he branched out into more Soulquarian reaches. He honed his style on an indie grind but had dreams of Death Row-caliber sales. And his blend of lyricism-qua-lyricism and confessional (sometimes even vulnerable) autobiography comes across now like a philosophical bridge between the battle-collective Project Blowed ’90s and the iconoclastic mayhem of Odd Future’s 2010s — just with a smaller cast of characters.

Most subversive of all, the album leaks that sabotaged many rappers’ best-laid plans in the mid ’00s turned out to be beneficial for Blu: His label Sound In Color only had the budget to press a few thousand CD copies of Below the Heavens, so the album’s limited sales potential was actually outweighed by the advantage of an MP3-blog-savvy and mixtape-spreading young audience getting the music out there for free. It was like a dry run for the 2010s streaming model: Let curious listeners cop the album for nothing, then give them something so deep to dive into that they’ll happily shell out the cash to see him live and hit the merch table.

Below the Heavens wasn’t made to sound commercial, but it was still familiar enough as an underground rap record with the usual production touchstones. Exile was and remains one of the most immediately engaging Dilla/Pete Rock/Madlib stylistic disciples, after all, though just enough ahead of the game that he could anticipate the Brainfeeder and Low End Theory-cultivated future of the Los Angeles beat scene. And other tracks that Blu cut around the same time as the original Below the Heavens material saw the light in different forms in 2008 — hammering through Ta'Raach’s boom-bap beat mutations with C.R.A.C. and waxing blunted-psychedelic with Mainframe behind the boards as Johnson&Johnson — which hinted at his voice’s versatile comfort in a litany of production styles.

But those freshly minted late-’00s fans would soon find a reason to be perplexed. As the streaming era dawned behind the mass adoption of MySpace, concurrent with the late-decade rise of SoundCloud and Bandcamp as label-bypassing DIY catalysts, Blu upped his output to a sometimes bewildering effect. He’d drop records and mixtapes that sounded too unmastered or raw to justify a traditional brick-and-mortar release, some of which were so lo-fi that they sounded like another decade’s demo tapes. Quality control took a backseat to urgency, which might’ve irritated audiophiles but at least added a charge of excitement in their “you have to hear this right now” rawness.

It’s like a director not being able to wait for a film to drop to theaters and just putting a workprint out there to see who else is hyped about the project. Years before Kanye turned the post-release life of The Life of Pablo into an exercise in micromanaged editing, Blu just kept dropping early betas, often with production so lo-fi that not even the most meditatively focused among us could study or chill to it. It could be frustrating, but it also highlights a fortuitous overlap between the confidently arrogant belief that nobody can or needs to tell him what to do and the open-minded curiosity that keeps him trying risky new things anyway. Sometimes it comes across like he needs to say something more urgently than he needs a lot of people to hear it; if that means sketchbook albums and unmastered beats, then so be it. 

Her Favorite Colo(u)r first manifested as one of several projects Blu was working on simultaneously after concluding a three-year tour grind with Exile. (The title would later gain further traction after its 2011 Nature Sounds reissue.) Like the other concurrently created projects that eventually saw the light of day — the multi-MC showcase Open; Sene collab A Day Late & A Dollar Short; the technically unreleased TheGODleeBarnes(LP) that he just dropped without warning on Twitter one day in 2010 — Blu seemed dead set on graduating from an MC defined by his producer collabs to a producer/MC in his own right.

His clearest reference point around this time was Madlib, the LA underground’s favorite hallucinogenic eclecticist. Blu’s jazz knowledge might not have run as deep as Otis Jackson Jr.’s, and during the period in which he made all these records, he was just starting to immerse himself in the genre. But he did come to the similar conclusion that the rule-breaking cosmic genius of Sun Ra was a personal favorite. You can hear a bit of Madlib’s fearless first-idea-best-idea spontaneity in his beats around this time — as well as the purposefully murky, hiss-muddied low end that future Stones Throw cornerstones like Knxwledge and Mndsgn would melt earbuds with in the following decade.

Out of all the projects from this time, Her Favorite Colo(u)r remains the most accessible, even with its position in the greater scheme of things like the announcement of a stylistic transition. It was short, at 30 minutes, which led some to classify it as an EP. But there was a point to each of its 14 tracks, no matter how brief. It was meant to be taken as a whole, a sort of featurette audio film that not only sampled music to create its own soundtrack, but film dialogue to create its own narrative. It’s an old trick in hip-hop, one that builds a familiar cinematic shorthand for the real (or real-enough) world that lyricists portray, while still allowing for the likelihood that the films themselves — ScarfaceSuper FlyThe 36th Chamber of Shaolin — are also inseparable from their influence on the rappers’ ways of defining themselves and their surroundings.

Her Favorite Colo(u)r does this with all the enthusiastic video store and UHF late-night curriculum as a first-wave Wu-Tang record, except instead of crime pulp and martial arts, it’s noticeably closer to art house. Sometimes it’s channeled through allusions you’d only catch if you closely knew the source material: The album literally starts with a clip from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love that precedes a moment where Adam Sandler’s protagonist Barry Egan kicks out the patio windows of his sister’s house in unchecked emotional rage after being teased. Sometimes it’s a bit more blunt, like Clive Owen in Mike Nichols’ Closer furiously interrogating Julia Roberts about the sexual prowess of his friend that she slept with. And sometimes it’s just a knowing nod to the kind of self-conscious insecurity harbored by nearly everyone who cares a little too much about art. Blu might not have a ton in common with controversial cartoonist Robert Crumb, but a clip from the Terry Zwigoff documentary that catches Crumb worrying about the movers schlepping his records — “A bunch of football jocks, ‘What do you got here? A bunch of old albums or something?’” — fits him every bit as much as a well-timed break does. Blu’s not rapping on every track, but he’s still speaking to you.

The beats are rough — he was still in a phase where he was messing with Pro Tools in a bare-bones studio setup — but they also benefit from the lo-fi atmosphere’s chronological disconnect where a sample sounds weathered and lived-in for decades, while not necessarily bound to those decades. 1940s Billie Holiday, ’50s James Brown, ’60s Jimi Hendrix, ’70s Curtis Mayfield and ’00s Radiohead all melt together in a sort of everything-is-blues mise en scène, those familiar voices echoing into a Greek chorus of public self-reckoning: “Am I blue? You think you drive me crazy? Have you ever been?” There’s beauty and grace in the source material: soul vocals and jazz chops unified by yearning melodies and drum breaks that sound like quantized nervous tics, and then it’s all dosed with a dust-on-the-needle static that adds another layer of distancing. It sounds like it’s been sitting around in the weather, but isn’t musty enough to avoid living in.

As rapping for its own sake, Blu still captivates, even if it takes more than a handful of listens for his technique to permeate the haze. It can feel evident enough when he busts out the unusual rhyme schemes and flows — the A/A/B of “Untitled (LovedU)2” that drills its sing-song lopsidedness into your brain with ruthless efficiency, the way he rap-sings out the sparse language in “Celln’Ls” like the riff-based indie rock structure it lifts, how he threatens to go breathlessly run-on in “Pardon,” only to hit emphatic pauses at just the right moments. Even just reading it laid out on the page brings insight, at which point you double back, find the details you’d only half-heard in the mix and let the poetry and the rhythm of the language shine a few dozen watts brighter.

The narrative those verses are in the service of, it should be noted, is a breakup. But it becomes unclear throughout, and deliberately so, whether this is specifically about a certain partner, a stand-in for failed relationships in general or an even broader dissatisfaction with hip-hop — the same H.E.R. that Common used to love. That Blu made something that could be as specific or as generalized in its concept is a sly side effect of how spontaneous and enigmatic his work was at this time. It’s the kind of rap writing that demands rewinds first for its “Did he just pull that off?” skills with assonance and internal rhyming, then again for its allusions to be parsed and interpreted. 

Either way, the struggle between vulnerability and guardedness is palpable. “Cautious when I lace a flow ’cause / Po’s think I’m painting codes,” he admits on “Amnesia,” which brings up thoughts of both the ridiculous, destructive tendency for rap lyrics to be held up in court as evidence of criminal intent and the more metaphorical policing of lyrics for signs of somebody else’s standard-breaking sense of “fakeness.” And he’s got reason to want to avoid all that, as the combination of hip-hop’s ever-shifting standards of “real” and the burgeoning panopticon-ification of early social media are a good two-fer if you want to be intensely, excessively aware of what you’re worried people will think of you. “’Cause nobody knows my mental like me,” he states on “Vanity,” “Open my window let you people get a peep, peep / My life is simple, yo they think the shit is deep.”

So when he lets that guard slip, it’s a deep-dive into the subconscious stuff. “Diss queers ’cause I ain’t one, play dumb / girls know I’ve got a great tongue,” he spits in the first verse of the brag track “Since,” a declaration that feels like a multi-tiered defense against outside accusations of being soft and, though not entirely justified, a hint of a sideways admission that there might be some overcompensating insecurity behind it all. (That Punch-Drunk Love scene comes back to mind, where Barry’s breakdown happens because his sisters tease him with stories about how ‘we used to call you gay boy.’”) Later, on “Wind(terludeOne),” he digs back into his catalogue to pin some negative relationship vibes as “some karma from the second verse of ‘Up All Night,’” possibly referencing the fuck-and-run lyrics on the Johnson&Johnson cut, but maybe the hater-proof confidence he used on that track to boast “not to be conceited, but by the way, we the shit.” Which seems self-evident, but why the qualifiers, reminders and disclaimers?

This album hits the way it does because it’s about love, and love is about vulnerability, about giving yourself in total to someone in a way that leaves you open to sharing fear and embarrassment and shame. If love is severed, there’s always the anxiety that this person will then use that knowledge and experience of your vulnerabilities to attack your character. And if the object of that severed love isn’t a specific person, but your artform — like Blu addresses on “Untitled (LovedU)2” (“I wonder if I left my stereo / Would you care to let me go / Or would you keep me shackled in your chains”) — well, there’s an even bigger existential crisis to worry about.

Were fans falling out of love with Blu’s music while they waited for another Below the Heavens, even though he intended to move on? Was it because Blu’s emergence as a producer sometimes made his music a little harder to parse out, since the blown-out fidelity of his own beats had a tendency to make his lyrics a little tougher to hear? Was it just the inevitable side effect of casual early listeners finding it hard to keep up with an artist experimenting in nonstop new-idea-machine mode? Whatever the case, Blu was starting to face these questions, right at a time when he was making records that foreshadowed a lo-fi LA future he wouldn’t get enough credit for. No wonder that when he finally cut another session with Exile in his creatively busy post-tour 2009, the resulting album that arrived three years later would be called Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them.

But Blu’s career continues to thrive on his own terms, and Her Favorite Colo(u)r hits harder than it did on its initial 2009 leaked-to-streaming run or its official, somewhat-remastered first physical release two years later. We’re more used to noise in hip-hop, more accustomed to pendulum-swinging inner conflicts between invincibility and unease, even more forgiving of those times when artists put out a potentially alienating experiment or two for every crowd-pleaser. It’s an untraditional album that blurs the lines between pop culture references as familiar touchstones and the specificity of a film or a record that speaks to an artist’s own impossible-to-duplicate experience, a run-on sensory-overload experience that could feel mysteriously impressionistic and painfully specific all at once.

Profile Picture of Nate Patrin
Nate Patrin

Nate Patrin is a freelance music writer whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, Stereogum, Red Bull Music Academy, The Shfl and many other outlets. His first book, 2020’s Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop, is currently available through University of Minnesota Press.

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