One of the rap underground's more controversial figures reunites with the muse that birthed his following and displays the artistic growth he's mostly fought to obscure since 2009.
Blu is a difficult artist, as I've danced around before. His "big moment" came five years ago on the back of then-rising producer Exile's soulful, boom bap sound with one of message boards' original patron saint LPs, Below the Heavens. His earnest, diary-like lyrics merged with Exile's nostalgic production in a way that tugged at the heart strings of many a purist, those who were able to feel burned by Lupe Fiasco's perceived mainstream slant or Nas' continued lack of restraint. He was an artist who gave himself fully to his craft, and while it didn't result in a perfect album it was something anyone with an ear for the Golden Age was willing to get behind. He was Kendrick Lamar before we knew such a thing was on the horizon, and a few Roots co-signs later Blu seemed destined for the internet spotlight for years to come.
His unwillingness to play to expectations in the years since has been very telling of his character. NoYork, which I've previously heaped praise on, was a marketing debacle so challenging Warner Bros. refused to release it, and many of the projects between that and Below the Heavens have been released mastered and unmastered on his bandcamp page, often mere months apart and antagonizing his paying fans in the process. Tales have been woven about his monotonous, dispiriting live sets over the past year and, over time, the artist whom was once promised unwavering support from the diehard marks of message boards and hip-hop criticism appeared all too eager to be side-eyed at every turn.
Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them was both surprising and very much not for pestering fans in the same way; his big reunion with Exile originally dripped onto the internet unceremoniously last fall with a wimper, mostly unmixed and with a variety of sequencing problems that made it a chore to listen to. Nearly a year later, Fat Beats have re-released the album with some altered track titles, dropped "John McCain" (a bafflingly out of place instrumental ode to trap-EDM that never felt like an Exile track to begin with) and added a couple new ones in its place -- and it's hard to tell if one should be surprised the result is a subversively entertaining listen, one that bridges the underground hero of his debut with the weirdego tripping of his latter works.
His blurry, blunted style of lyricism I lauded on NoYork! is very present here, so it feels more prescient to discuss how that works when its setting is a little less abstracted. Exile has grown a lot as a producer over this half-decade (someday, someone will figure out what version of "Moody's Mood for Love" he mangled into another kind of beauty on the instrumental opener) but he mostly gives Exile the same jazz-inflected bop that initially made Blu feel like such an old soul. His work here isn't a nostalgic product, though: "Ease Your Mind" cracks the album proper open with a psychedelic, sort-of acoustic Brazilian-type beach jam over which Blu raps about sex, accepting one's self-image and bong relaxation. If that's not your preferred flavor of normal-weird, he'll sample Mr. Robinson's theme, Pusha T, Biggie Smalls and Tom Waits later on... he'll have you covered somewhere, if not everywhere.
And when he's toying around with typical piano- and drum-based beats, he still finds ways to add subtle effects that recall Jamaican dub echoes and early '90s vinyl worship. "Maybe One Day" recalls all of what made NoYork! feel so challenging and yet it's such a typical hip-hop song in most ways; it's a cleverness that was hard to extract from last year's leak but rings clear throughout this retail release. And his pastoral works, like "O Heaven" and "feel as if they've descended direct from the clouds that figured prominently in this pair's first collaboration, luminous and bright in a way so much modern hip-hop seems afraid of. There are other productions like "I Am Jean" and "" that bring to mind Digable Planets' way of making a rapper feel like he was backed by a full jazz quartet - if Give Me My Flowers were simply an instrumental LP, it would already at the very least be a must listen.
Due to Blu's past oddness, the knee jerk reaction would be to find a way to make excuses for him here, to call his effort on Give Me My Flowers an atonement for everything that's been alienating about him lately, even NoYork!. But given a true mix job over (basically) traditional hip-hop music for the first time in years it's increasingly clear that even if Blu's useless half the time he steps into the spotlight of the real world, he's grown into a master of the studio. His timing with these beats is consistently awe-inspiring (just check how he shifts his emotions subtly on the wavy "More Out of Life") and if he was lauded for his straight forward honesty at the beginning of his career he should be equally praised for the way he's used the alchemy of weed and 40 ouncers to find a refreshingly original persona that feels at once like Ghostface Killah on "All That I Got Is You" and Mos Def on "History".
His trains of thought feel appealing on their surface, but it's really when you start letting his words sink in that the album really opens up to human scrutiny. "They say the limit is the sky, but I'm sick of getting high / I don't want to have to die, just to feel like I'm alive / I just wanna be I (I just wanna be) / I wanna see me in your eyes again" exists on the same album as "Sent through Heaven to Hell to send dreams of / Places once dwelled, but I feel for the green stuff / Swore I could fly back and say hi again / But my money just no good." Blu constantly plays his issues against themselves, obviously aware of his flaws while embodying all the existential confusion that exists within most all 20-something 21st century males.
As the title implies, this is an album that reveals Blu to be self-aware, an idea his cult was born from, but has been diminished with nearly every project he's released since. Give Me My Flowers is a bit of an image rehabilitation project for him, even if it's not explicitly intended to be. He constantly questions his religious beliefs, his drug addictions and his past loves on the album atop some of Exile's most gorgeous, infectious production yet. Even if the album weren't intended as a sequel to his debut it really has no choice but to feel like one; oftentimes, listening to the album feels like watching Michael Apted's Up documentary series, in which he catches up with a variety of people every seven years to see how their lives have panned out.
Working with Exile seems to ground Blu, forcing him to examine his self-image and the way the world perceives him. It's just riveting stuff for those who value rap music as a sort of social experiment, and those who've stuck with Blu throughout his whole gonzo period of bandcamps and muddy zshare files ought to feel vindicated by Fat Beats' treatment of this album. Blu may have spent most of his post-Below the Heavens career burning one bridge after another, but Give Me My Flowers is not only a better album, it's an atonement for all the swerves he's thrown audiences' way since breaking out. Perhaps it's unlikely he keeps this up, but against a variety of odds Blu mostly placed on himself the past 12 months have made him one of the genre's most vital voices, one of its true must-hear artists. A tip of the hat is in order.