Blu, Johnson Barnes, HerFavoriteColo(u)r. B e s t l y r i c s PART TWO: It gets deep this time.
Missed PART ONE?
THE ONLY ONE – GIVE ME MY FLOWERS WHILE I CAN STILL SMELL THEM
I remember a conversation I once had about how lyrics can’t be poetry because they have the music to back them up. Poetry has to stand on its own without assistance.
It didn’t take long for me to realise the best lyrics can do just that: transcend the music and stand alone, and for me only a few artists have really been capable of writing that way. It started with Dylan, then it was Matt Berninger, and rounding it off: Blu.
The song these lines appear on, The Only One, is a subtle masterwork because Exile’s quirky, playful beat almost masks the depth and starkness of the lyrics themselves. Read the lines aloud, and its profound stuff – to the point where you have to go back over the words to convince yourself Blu packed that much into such a brief excerpt.
“Lost myself trying to follow men/reading books to fill this hollow skin,” (he drops a nice contradiction to this in Money from the same album: “used to read books/but it’s boring”). “Though I am not them/I pretend to be me every now and then.” What rapper do you know that not only gets this confessional, but does it so poetically? You can probably think of a few frontmen, but an MC better at it than Blu?
These lines definitely pass the poetry test, then. Listen to the The Only One and like so many of Blu’s lyrics, the images and ideas go past so quickly, you’re likely to miss the depth of each one. Add Exile’s limpid, bouncy backing to the mix and you’re not exactly in the reflective mood needed to catch the brilliantly erratic and layered narrative. But Blu adds an extra element of genius simply by matching his flow to the beat so well.
If you don’t want to get all contemplative, the words sound so perfectly suited to the beat that it doesn’t matter: it becomes about aesthetics. Just a fucking unstoppable and finely-synced flow on a frankly bizarre beat (listen to Mos Def’s Ms. Fat Booty for a more traditional – but still incredible – interpretation of the same Aretha Franklin sample). In that sense, the lines themselves are more like tools to help form that sweet confluence of music and lyrics that makes a Blu track a Blu track.
Even Dylan, Nobel prize-winning Dylan, struggled sometimes to make his most poignant lyrics both work as poetry and sit so beautifully within the music. I’m thinking of stuff like Not Dark Yet where the lines are great, but he’s sometimes rushing to fit them in a bar. And on top of all that, it doesn’t even sound like Blu is trying when he pulls this stuff off, thanks to that lazy delivery.
SO(U)L AMAZIN’ (STEEL BLAZIN’) – BELOW THE HEAVENS
I could have picked any lines from this Below The Heavens classic. Soul Provider has so much intense lyricism I must have heard it literally hundreds of times and I still get caught out when I try to follow the lyrics in my head. Try it – “The soul provider, got a, lot on the skillet…er… chillin?” nope.
But with these particular lines, he’s offering hope to the masses, and this is where another Dylan parallel comes in. He’s assuming a leader role for his community, as he delivers deep and thoughtful lyrics in a genre that couldn’t have needed it more in 2007 – giving his people, and Hip Hop devotees everywhere, the hope he references; hope for the culture and hope for lyricism in general.
But, just as Dylan spent years trying to distance himself from the ‘voice of a generation’ label the media foisted upon him, Blu has spent the decade following Below The Heavens distancing himself from the persona he conveyed on the album. He’s said in numerous interviews that his debut album was what it was, and that he wanted to provide work that sounded and felt entirely different with each succeeding album – something he’s managed to follow through with.
And that’s why these lines seem so bittersweet in retrospect. Great artists should do just what Blu did in the years following Below the Heavens: demonstrate how they can adapt to different styles, and unmask how easy it is to adopt a pose and call it an identity.
Many rappers would be content to try and maintain the “rapid fire soul stuff I used to hit ’em off with,” as Blu calls it on Amnesia. But he’s done that better than any other MC could ever hope to do with BTH, and he’s moved on to show how easy it is to slip into other artistic personas, unveiling the game beneath the carapace of what’s perceived as creativity.
Creative types express a worldview in interesting ways, but true artists are capable of believably expressing every kind of worldview without ever committing to any one in particular. Like a great author can inhabit the mind of every one of his characters in such a way that makes them feel real without ever needing to actually be any one of the characters.
That’s why the line, which no one seems to be able to find the originator of (Cesar A. Cruz or Finley Dunne?) about how art should “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” is the only one you need to keep in mind if you’re trying to create something worth creating. The comfortable are often the ones who’ve decided on an identity and stuck with it, while the disturbed are often those who are still searching for themselves, or who enjoy the search more than the discovery. Never content. To show a comfortable person that identity is almost an illusion, is to disturb their view of the world as a place where you have to decide who you are.
To show how you can believably do what others do, then move on to show you can do everything else they can’t do, and just as believably, is to disturb them in the deepest way possible.
And that’s what’s happening here. Below The Heavens was and is Blu for so many listeners. And any deviation is disturbing because it’s not the Blu people had pigeonholed in their minds. But it’s all part of the art. Just as when Dylan plugged in and the world called “Judas” (or, at least some twat in the audience did) because he disturbed their view of their favourite ‘song and dance man’, in So(u)l Amazin’ Blu is setting his followers up to view him a certain way with this line about providing hope, before he blows their collective minds with the roughness of Her Favorite Colo(u)r, or the electronic pulse of No York.
It’s art, plain and simple. And it’s art that goes beyond one song or album. It’s the artist becoming the art itself.
BERRIES AND JUICES – GIVE ME MY FLOWERS WHILE I CAN STILL SMELL THEM
MCs often use beats as a blank canvas for their ideas, and that’s cool. But it can sometimes seem as though the beat is secondary to the lyrics, and in some cases, just something on which to hawk up a load of braggadocio. Again, that’s cool. Some truly terrible beats have been transformed simply because of lyrical ability.
But beat-making is, and always has been, a huge part of the culture’s history, and it’s almost always a better experience when an MC takes the time to listen to a track’s groove and tries to mesh his or her flow with it. And, as I mentioned before, that’s something Johnson Barnes is a master of.
Blu seems to think of a beat not just as a canvas, but as a landscape, with peaks to be yelled from, valleys to hole up in, and dynamics that can be scaled, ridden, and generally traversed in search of a complete and fully-realised Hip Hop track. And though Berries and Juices doesn’t feature his deepest or most complex lyrics, it’s a perfect melding of beat and lyricist.
At the point in the song where these particular lines come in, Blu, in perfectly-pitched lackadaisical style, has already acknowledged the sheer might of the track, giving Exile his props: “Shout out to the ____ who produced it… beats so sweet that I ain’t even gotta do shit.” You know he’s aware of the beat and he’s trying to deliver a cohesive product when he utters these next lines, then.
And they’re delivered so calmly you’re likely to miss the intricacies until you stop to think about them. First of all, he’s started the line with the rhyme he intends to end on: “Blu is” begins the section, and “Q-Tip” ends it. Then he compares himself to a “rose” in a garden of tulips, which coming out of any other rapper’s mouth would seem like an odd bit of word play, but just seems to fit.
In this first line then, he’s set up a pretty weird rhyme scheme, hit you with a metaphor that no other rapper could pull off convincingly, and alluded to the “flowers” in the title of the album he was probably unaware he was even rapping on when he recorded the verse.
Even using the third person “Blu” at the beginning adds to the colourful flower imagery that follows, giving you this sense of some weird blue rose that stands out even more in this “garden of tulips” that is other MCs. His usage of “strange” at the beginning of the second verse – “Strange music/even strange group of friends” – calls to mind Billie’s ‘Strange Fruit‘, which has a similarly odd and generally disturbing affect as the strange blue rose in the garden of tulips. It’s a bit tenuous, I know. But Blu loves a bit of Billie Holiday, and I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that his writing manages to evoke this kind of thing if you read close enough.
Then he gives you the next line, continuing the ‘oo’ sound from the first with “Who,” and “few”, even fitting in a “rose” call back with “know”. Even the doubled-up “know like” is reminiscent of the quick duo syllables of “tulip” from the setup. And finally he brings it back to straight Hip Hop with a Tribe Called Quest reference that, before the brilliant We Got It From Here… introduced a whole new generation to original Tribe member Jarobi, was a frankly genius comparison to wrap up these couple of lines.
How do you go from this almost surreal floral imagery to some fairly deep Hip Hop history reference, throwing in such an unorthodox rhyme scheme, and make it all flow together so well it sounds like you must have heard the line somewhere else before? Who cares – before you can even start thinking about it, he’s off to another of Berries and Juices‘ peaks to give you some more.