Nobody knows my music tastes better than Nathan and Yoh. We spend a few hours a week on Google Hangouts debating, discussing, and nerding out about music, and after this long it’s inevitable they’ve come to know my affinity for samples, my dislike for drug dealing music, and my unabashed love of Taylor Swift. But like every good marriage, we still surprise each other.
Just last week, we were discussing the enigmatic emcee known as Blu. If you peruse DJBooth, it’s a name you should at the very least recognize. However, what you might not know is that he’s been going through something. What that something is nobody really knows. Like most trouble these days, it started with a series of tweets. Nothing about Drake or ghostwriting, something more serious, more troubling. Something many have called “crazy” but I won’t demean by boiling down to one dismissive word.
He may not be topping charts or doing Drake numbers, but Blu has amassed a cult following, and so in the course of our conversation about those tweets Yoh was shocked to learn I had never sat down and listened to Blu’s indie classic, Below The Heavens. Sometimes music just misses you the first time around, but it's never too late. Yoh thought I would love his no frills, reality-driven lyrics and of course the samples. He was right. Exile’s production is amazing. Colorful, rich and light. There’s personality in these beats. Soul samples that have their own soul, a soul that echoes Blu’s sentiments. That wholesome, dusty feel to the beats really helps Blu’s words to stick. They always seem to match and balance each other out. The perfect couple; they finish each other's sandwiches.
Like on “I Am…”, the way that flip is juxtaposed against Blu’s rhymes is captivating. The sample is airy but Blu has a certain urgency in his flow, and while Exile’s production is the baseline for any sample nerd, it was Blu who really drew me in. On “Simply Amazing” he delivers boastful bars after just finishing a love song in “No Greater Love” and then proceeding to one of the albums more spiritual tracks, “The World Below.” Blu spans so many different sounds, styles, and themes but always maintains a deep level of thoughtfulness, sensitivity and authenticity. He pours his personality into every song and as a result, I connected with him immediately.
Yoh was right, I loved it, but I loved it for reasons Yoh couldn’t have known. What Yoh didn’t know is I’ve been struggling lately. What Yoh didn’t know is that our glimpse into Blu’s mental health struggles and my glimpse into Below the Heavens felt more real than ever.
This album made me feel like I was just discovering hip-hop again. Sure, the soul samples took me back, but it was more about context than content. Below The Heavens reminded me of a time when I didn't feel right. When I felt lost and...dare I say it...blue. It was a time when my only respite from feeling stuck was the way music could make me feel like I was hovering, floating. I thought about how good it feels when an artist seems to understand you, or maybe you understand him? The conversation is one-sided, but there's a conversation.
I thought about the rain clouds and the quest to escape them. Then I thought about how I’m still doing the same thing today. I thought about Blu. How, like me, he struggled and is clearly still struggling now. How hip-hop’s an escape but also sometimes the root of my stress; it’s what puts food on my table. I won't compare battle scars and war stories, his are certainly much worse than mine - I’ve never had to deal with poverty and discrimination—but there's a part of me, especially now, that really identified with Blu’s struggle. It was kind of spooky to hear lines that roused my old demons.
Back in 2007, Blu was rapping about feelings of hopelessness, frustration, and exhaustion. In 2016, despite his successes, it seems like he's wrestling with some of the same things. Blu’s words and those beats hit me because we're both still running from rain clouds. Different clouds. Bigger clouds. Clouds, pouring down rain that I’m trying to dodge with a tattered umbrella in the form of a soul sample or sentimental line. Sometimes the clouds feel too big. Maybe it’s seeing friends on the holidays and feeling a distance, or maybe it’s just one of those months, but recently the rain's been soaking me.
I’ve been trying to weather the storm, to hide and wait for a brighter day, but in light of Blu’s struggles and just now finding this album, I’m realizing that might be the wrong technique.
The only constant seems to be rain, yet I’ve been waiting for it to stop—what if it never does? Stress is inevitable and as we get older, as we overcome obstacles, new ones appear. If it’s not stressing about getting married it's stressing about staying married, stressing about kids, if you work a 9-5 you stress about the loss of individuality, if you work for a rap blog you can sometimes long for that security.
With friends getting married and starting families it’s hard not to think about how ill-equipped I feel for both. Having a wife and kids feels like an endpoint, but it would just bring on a whole new set of struggles when I'm no longer responsible for just myself. Thinking about Blu’s ongoing struggles and thinking about my own made me realize the only constant is rain and you can't just hide out, waiting for it to end. Maybe that perspective is what I need to push through.
In some weird way it’s comforting knowing there’s no end to the struggle; maybe it makes me feel less "broken." Now I can stop waiting and start dealing. Or to paraphrase my favorite song off the album, I’ve been waiting for the rain to stop, but maybe it’s time I start dancing through it.
Photo Credit: Instagram