Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I Will Never Like: Blu

Blu bores me. Sure, he can flow and his lyrics show some degree of writerly detail, but there is absolutely nothing compelling about his personality. Were he a singer and not a rapper, this might not be a problem. I find Thom Yorke to be quite irritating in interviews and his lyrics increasingly read like the repetitive ravings of a bus stop paranoiac, but the sound of his voice can still give me chills.

Rapping requires a tremendous amount of personality and conviction, and truthfully may be closer to acting than singing, because the ultimate aim is to make the listener believe what you are saying is true. This is the reason Tupac will be forever more popular than, say, Rakim, because the former, whether he believed his own bullshit or not, portrayed the more interesting character. I'm not saying Rakim didn't possess personality or conviction, just that his persona of the uber-MC got stale quickly because, while intelligent and poetic, it was, from a dramatic standpoint, pretty one-dimensional.

Looking at it this way, rappers like Blu are bad actors. They write fluid, poetic rhymes full of metaphors and similes but deliver them in a way that signifies only their lyrical prowess and nothing else. What could be more boring? Even when he's rapping about dead friends on Johnson and Jonson's "Hold On John," Blu sounds like he's a motivational speaker giving a lecture on "What Grief Can Teach Us." No wonder so many listeners would rather listen to Lil Boosie curse the world because his friend died, because even if he's not capturing very many specific details, the visceral emotion of losing someone comes across loud and clear and isn't undercut with faux-wisdom and self-help platitudes.

I'm not saying Blu is some unfeeling, uncaring intellectual and Boosie some salt of the earth "real dude," just that the latter better understands the dramatic nature of rap music. The reason so called "positive" or "conscious" rap isn't more popular has nothing to do with listeners disliking songs with positive messages. Popular music is full of hokey songs that even the most cynical listeners find themselves enjoying purely because of the melody. But subtract the melody and have some dude just saying stuff like "R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me" and the sentiment lives and dies based on its delivery. If rappers want us to respond to their "wisdom" and "knowledge," they've got to convince us that both were hard earned and not some shit they just thought up when they were stoned. Rappers who rhyme about drug dealing and living in fear of being killed have it easier because their subjects are already inherently dramatic.

Blu, and rappers like him, epitomize the problem with lyrical prowess as the primary standard for judging rappers, and help explain the ascendancy of what Brandon Soderberg calls post-lyricism. Just putting some hot lines together and rapping them well is not enough anymore; now you have to, like a good actor, create a compelling character that can transcend the fact that, at the end of the day, you're just a dude reciting poetry.