As with every year, 2011 offered its share of challenging hip-hop artists, the champion of whom became Digable Planets alumni Butterfly’s long-hyped project Shabazz Palaces. But the year’s truly difficult release spent so long brewing under the surface in a milieu of misdirection and broken promises that it seems addressing it a month after its release is still yet too soon. NoYork! challenges anyone who’s only cursorily familiar with California MC Blu’s past work, and if you happened to take an interest in him, you may as well strap on a helmet before you queue up NoYork! because you’re in for a very bumpy ride. While Blu fans might have settled into the games of cat and mouse he chooses to play with his fans through the varying battlegrounds of fidelity, price points, or simply not rapping over beats by Exile, nothing could have prepared them for NoYork!, let alone curious passersby.
You see, the sound of NoYork! is fueled by the Low End Theory Club, an LA fixture buoyed by producers Gaslamp Killer, Daddy Kev, and NoCanDo (also boasting such luminous regulars as Flying Lotus, Sa-Ra Creative Partners, Madlib, Dibia$e, and more). It’s essentially the hip-hop-centric night spot where all the cool kids can hang out and — at times rather aggressively — blur the lines between hip-hop, IDM, Purple Sound, dubstep, R&B, wonky, and jazz. The artists associated with the club have quickly become known for producing some of the most forward thinking instrumental hip-hop and glitch music of the past two or three years; somehow, Blu managed to get tangled up in their web, and Warner Bros. Records managed to green-light the mangled result that is NoYork!.
It’s a hell of a gamble by Blu because he’s backed himself with a sound that can’t currently be compared to any other vocal hip-hop album of measurable consequence. There’s been a lot of talk about how NoYork! proves Blu may have totally lost what made him such a compellingly fresh voice on the scene with Below the Heavens. But that thinking seems strange considering this album is full of equally candid verses delivered atop seemingly unrappable backgrounds. There are a few moments that don’t feel too far removed from regular west coast tropes (“A Bove Crenshaw”, the opening/closing duo “Doin’ Nothin’ / Doin’ Somethin'”, and “Ronal Morgan”), but most of your time spent with NoYork! will be a decidedly original experience.
“SLNGBNGers” follows “A Bove Crenshaw” with a continuous rattle of 1980s arcade sound effects that make up the entire beat. “Hours” is a very abstract pop song (with a verse that’s clearly an homage to Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”) built on a very repetitive yet alluring melody that continuously builds until the song finally slides away four minutes later — and an uncredited female guest giggles that she’s still trying to figure out what she was supposed to be doing with the song. You can feel that sort of creative energy straining against the speaker wire throughout this LP, and if it gets enough spins for some semblance of familiarity to settle in, it becomes a little baffling how confidently Blu hurdles a cut like that or “Never Be the Same”.
Obviously, NoYork! can’t be an album for everyone. Unless you’re a huge fan of the production lineup here (Madlib, Flying Lotus, Dibia$e, Knxwledge, Samiyam and Daedelus) there’s no possible way it could satisfy what’s expected of it, and it’d be really unfair to expect your average hip-hop fan to embrace NoYork! with an open mind anytime soon. But for those listeners who’ve found a place for Shabazz Palaces in their hearts or just really wonder what kind of new ideas hip-hop could still be capable of nearly 40 years into its existence, you’re not going to find a better surprise than this one. This is an album that teeters so dangerously between repulsively unapproachable and emphatically lovable that Warner Bros. sat on it for damn near the entire year. The details of its release are still a little cloudy, although we do know Blu’s essentially released it himself, first through throwing out his own pirated copies at the CMJ festival in New York and later providing Tumblr links and a physical release through website Undergroundhiphop.com with a self-funded indie label.
Its presence seems to demand attention, and it will be interesting to see how much it garners over the next few years — and to see how many other Los Angeles artists attempt to follow in its footsteps. Like Shabazz Palaces, Blu makes rapping about everyday street experiences seem absurdly complex and adventurous, perhaps in a way that’s detrimental in the immediate future but will reveal itself to be a worthwhile risk in time. The combination of 2010 and 2011 in general has left me more excited for the future of hip-hop than I’ve been in a long, long time, but NoYork!‘s December release stamps a gargantuan, extra-boldfaced exclamation point or four at the end of that statement.