Imagine you’re a hip hop group and you read a review of your debut record that mentions Black Star, J Dilla, and the Cool Kids in the first sentence. What would you think? I hope it’s something along the lines of “wow, we’re sure doing something right” because Blu and Mainframe have put out the first great album of 2009 (It came out in September, but was quickly forgotten amongst the big mainstream releases. Indie rappers! If you want people to jump on your record, wait until January nothing comes out then). On the first track alone, which is really a multi-act trip that still clocks in at under 5 minutes, they’ve got me thinking about Run DMC, about No One Can Do It Better, about really settling down with a good Kanye album for the first time. It’s a pace they can’t possibly keep up for the rest of the record, and they don’t, but it simultaneously recalls the greats while being unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. It’s not a track, it’s certainly not a single, it’s a song, and the distinction is clear.
I’ve been trying to review this album for a while now, and a few things stand out to me beyond that first track. There’s “Up All Night,” which has this calm and meandering bassline alongside “Homie just relax / I’m on some OG Mr. Mack / And hos know me / only from the oldie pimpin’ mags / on the cover with his mag / like this motherfucker’s bad / damn right, don’t make me jam this mic up in your ass / stand right up in his class / and ask the teacher who was bad / and tell you LL, cause Michael Jackson was a fag.” The whole album feels transplanted from 20 years ago, not just from beats but also from attitudes. Blu seems nostalgic, even. Or the next track, “Half a Knot,” Blu recalls his teenage years alongside boasts that “the game ain’t been the same since I changed it.” T.I. had it right – swagger like a college kid. When I was 16, I got my first car, a car that was built when I was two years old that I bought from the widow down the street for $500. The song, in two minutes, packs in the kind of confidence I had after I got that car, being able to be relatively in control of my own destiny for the first time, hanging out in parking lots with friends after midnight.
“Mama Always Told Me” sets up and knocks down its full thought in only two and a half minutes – the contrast between what his mom told him and who his dad hung out with: “Damn, I wanna be like those guys, the negroes / the menace to societies / public enemies / Chuck Taylors and white tees.” I’ll forgive his improper pluralization (it’s menaces to society, Blu) because he jumps on hood attitudes and the expectations of white folks and tracing his life from childhood to 22, reaching a grand climax: “This is for the OGs / that used to call me John Jr. / you the next / yes, you was right / Blu is like a vet / already and I’m only 22 up in the booth / givin truth back / aiming at the hearts of niggas arguing / for sixteen bucks / it’s like they’d rather shoot gats than change, grow, live life / change growin’ kids like my mama always told me.” It’s fitting that on XXL’s recent cover story about the class of 2009, Blu and Wale were on different pages of the multi-page cover, as where Wale illustrated his most famous point by pointing to some anonymous black kid with white classmates, Blu tells his own story and the lessons he learned.
“Bout It Bout It” has a strategy that sets up every line to hit hard by backing it with a constantly growing and contracting beat, a perfect piece of pop condensed under two minutes. Maybe that’s what’s so appealing about this album – it lacks the bloat that hampers every modern release and distills every song to its pure message and hook. “Bout It Bout It” has one of the most memorable hooks on the record, but it’s not longer than three or four seconds, only repeated a few times through the song.
That’s the album. It recalls great things, it’s condensed into hyper-concentrated parts (and opener J&J, one of only two songs on the album to break 4 minutes, is really several songs in one) and it’s a classic bildungsroman, the MC enters adulthood. It’s reflective, it’s contemplative, it’s comfortingly familiar without being derivative, and you’re only hurting yourself by not picking it up.
Posted by Joe Kaiser at Mar 02, 2009 12:48 PM