For an artist with a career spanning over a decade, Johnson Barnes (“Blu”) is still an enigma. With each project, Blu displays an enthralling new facet of his talents for storytelling, wordplay, and emotional delivery. With this evolution, however, the underground L.A. rapper has never sacrificed the defining quality of his musical persona. Since his classic debut with producer Exile, 2007’s Below the Heavens, Blu has maintained a mythical underdog status comparable only to Kanye West on The College Dropout or Nas on Illmatic. Both longtime fans and newcomers to Blu’s music will find him a compelling figure to root for on his new solo album, The Color Blu(e).
Though not as meticulously produced as Blu & Exile’s 2020 opus Miles, The Color Blu(e) pulls from a rich tapestry of classic rock, doo-wop, and blues. Exile makes a return on “People Call Me Blu(e),” a warm, soulful beat with heavily layered vocals and record scratches reminiscent of DJ Premier. Blu wears his musical influences on his sleeve, and the result is a minimalist jazz rap gem.
The real star here, however, is Blu’s lyricism. The rapper has honed his craft to the point where each track flows seamlessly into the next. On “Blu(e)r than Blu(e),” the artist discusses his struggles to overcome his insecurities over a cinematic string section. You’re led to believe he emerges triumphant, and then Blu says: “I realized only Black is bluer than blue.” The track fades into “We Are Darker than Blu(e),” a pulsating, Curtis Mayfield-sampling piano number. Blu explores the meaning of Black identity in America, rapping: “What if Malcolm X wasn’t dead/And John F. Kennedy wasn’t shot in the head/And MLK was still living to this day/Do you think we would be living this way?”
In the spaces between Blu’s technical wizardry, you may recognize some iconic samples embedded in the album’s production. “Mr. Blu(e) Sky'' makes little effort to hide the iconic Electric Light Orchestra sample and its buoyant strings. A clear highlight of the album, “Because the Sky is Blu(e),” puts samples from The Beatles and the Wu-Tang Clan in conversation with a menacing and foreboding instrumental. The song features dizzying wordplay from Blu “My name is Blu/I personify myself with the sky like the gods” before transitioning into off-kilter, abstract imagery in the final verse.
The album’s closer, “Blu(e) World,” is an homage to the late Mac Miller, using the same sample from Miller’s posthumous 2020 song “Blue World.” Blu pays tribute to three childhood friends who have since passed away. He then expands the song’s concept by dedicating the track “to anyone that’s ever lost someone” and shouting out recently lost pop culture legends, such as Stan Lee, Kobe Bryant, and Chadwick Boseman. “Blu(e) World” is the best explanation for Blu’s enduring appeal: the rapper is able to convey deeply personal stories of loss and convert them into vehicles for universal grief.
With The Color Blu(e), we learn more about Blu (the person), blue (the color), and blueness (the feeling). There are few artists in any genre who produce music as emotionally resonant; simply put, when Blu talks, people listen.
Photo: Johnson Barns
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