So I first heard Blu rap in probably 2008 at Chop Suey when he was headlining a short-run tour with Macklemore. I went mainly to hear Macklemore and also to infuse utterly meaningless daps/handshakes with meaning; I was, after all, rapping locally at the time. And so my expectations were blessedly underdeveloped when he, Blu, tall with lank, entered with a minimally affected gait which communicated to me that he was a) cool; b) relaxed; and c) this way all the time. As he pumped through material mostly from Below the Heavens, I realized I was now a fan, possibly a die-hard one. While his stage presence was without the emotive magnetism Macklemore wielded even then, Blu’s mic command bordered on mastery, and he engaged with his material tangibly, sincerely; he moved.
Since then, I’ve held up my end of the bargain, purchasing with real money, in addition to Below the Heavens, his Johnson & Jonson project with Mainframe and C.R.A.C. Knuckles with Ta’Raach, and minded to consume mostly everything with his name on it. Some projects left me unfulfilled as follow-ups often do, my own expectations imposed more tyrannically with each passing year, but I wasn’t mad. (Like, I was mad at Common.)The subsequent projects I’ve heard did seem somehow less earnest, more prone to surfeits of rhyme-strings that, while exhilarating for their deftly rendered density, too often lacked his initial extra-terrestrial subtlety.
Over the past couple years, weird rumors about his on tour persona, an embarrassing Twitter exchange with Schoolboy Q, and released-but-not-finished projects have briefly presented themselves in my hours of internet window-shopping. On Wednesday I went to Neumos for his show with Nu Era and Tiron & Ayomarie. After they, respectively, did their best to counteract the lack of energy that accompanies a crowd ill-sized for a room, Blu walked on stage in a black letterman-ish jacket before he faced the crowd and began rapping.
I was again struck by how his voice, a little more weathered, a little less vibrant, still cut through the live mix and sprinted out in front of the beat, an immeasurable task for a lesser MC. He stood still, mic arm acutely angled, delivering his opening verse with a steely gaze I attributed to stoicism. After the intro, he deflatedly mused that they would be running through a few songs. (Translation: “I’m going to do as little of Below the Heavens as possible.”) He began with the ‘My Name Is’, spit about 8 bars, stopped as if awaiting the next in a pre-sequenced medley, waited, turned to his DJ, Bombay, who focused intently on his laptop showcased a sort of grin, and did nothing. After the beat continued inexorably, Blu relented and re-spit the same 8 bars, tried to continue and either ran out of steam or forgot the verse’s remainder. He trudged through bits of “Dancing in the Rain” and others, mumbling or leaving hooks un-sung/rapped.
During this stretch he repeatedly turned to Bombay, not unlike a child looking to a parent or friend for help when being bullied. Bombay never seemed to pick up on Blu’s gaze and continued staring into his laptop. The overall message was confusing: if there aren’t technical difficulties, why is Blu continuing to turn toward Bombay; and if there are difficulties, why is Bombay so set on acting like everything’s cool? He, Blu, soon planted his feet perpendicular to the audience, gazing blankly toward stage right when he wasn’t turning back at the waist.
Halfway through the set Blu was rapping primarily with his back to the audience and saying nothing between songs. At one point Tiron & Ayomarie returned for a couple songs, during which Blu meandered toward the back of the stage and, if I had to guess, wasn’t really listening. I couldn’t help but wonder if his disinterest was maybe malicious, and whether or not he was actively punishing us for being there. My defensiveness soon gave way to worry, because it ultimately didn’t seem like malice or even disinterest so much as a very real longing to get off stage. In fact, he tried to end his set 3 times; each time, though, Bombay either didn’t hear him or did and slyly ignored him, possibly aware of a contractual time obligation. I’m speculating. Regardless, after the third ‘last song’, Blu quickly said he was done, looked at the crowd for what seemed like the first time in ages, and made an “I’m done” hand-gesture. Then he walked off stage.
This is not the first ever review of this kind about a Blu show. After a cursory Google search just now, I see that a lackluster/infuriating performance has been blog-documented on at least two other occasions. And rap performance is a tricky animal, because the traditional set up (rapper, DJ) lacks the built in this-is-happening-right-now dynamic of other set ups, and not much other than an artist’s singular charisma has a chance of reinvigorating a crowd doomed to watch in the same manner one watches a sitcom re-run. But what differentiated this from other thoroughly unenjoyable shows I’ve seen is the hopelessness I felt more than heard, from an artist who 5 years ago made me feel the exact opposite.