Everyone loves a young artist on the verge. When a new, talented voice emerges from nowhere, we all buzz and titter. As a result, John "Blu" Barnes isn't talking to the press at the moment. According to the Los Angeles rapper's manager, Jonathan Kim, Blu is "trying to clear his head before he starts working on his next album," which will probably be made for a to-be-confirmed major label. "Clearing his head" means tuning out the noise of the blogs, magazines, fanboys, and hip-hop critics that lavished attention on him.
It may be the first time Blu's been silent by choice. He has stoked fans with sharp-tongued linguistics all year, issuing two albums Johnson&Jonson, with producer Mainframe, and as C.R.A.C. (Collect Respect Anna Check) with producer/rapper Ta'raach, The Piece Talks (both Tres) and scores of guest appearances on others' rap tracks. The avalanche of material brought his smack-talking, pussy-hunting abilities to the fore with increasing acclaim.
But in the high-stakes, winner-take-all world of hip-hop, one false move will not only get your ass dropped from a label roster like a kidney stone, it'll get your album shelved indefinitely. In its December issue, XXL magazine inducted Blu into the "Freshman Class of '09." It also included a brief "Graduation" story on last year's picks, nearly all of whom have fallen victim to stalled careers, waning audiences, or artistic malaise.
Years ago, when Blu was a hungry teenage striver in Southern California, he referred to this dangerous world of superstars, prodigies and has-beens as heaven. Below the Heavens: In Hell Happy with Your New Imaginary Friend (Sound in Color, 2007), his collaboration with producer Alec "Exile" Manfredi, "was a concept I came up with in high school," he told me back in January. "I thought all the people I was associated with were so-called below the heavens because we all want to get to heaven, and heaven was the mainstream, like, commercial success. And we were below the heavens."
Blu's path to heaven began with the help of Exile, whose career courses from underground to mainstream circles, from Emanon (his longtime indie-rap group with singer-rapper Aloe Blacc) to thug pioneers Mobb Deep. At the time, Blu was a self-described freestyler, the type of dude who battled other prospective rappers in huddled "cipher" circles outside LA nightclubs. Exile pushed him to write lyrics that were more than just invectives and put-downs.
"I was always pushing for a more personal record from him," Exile said. "He definitely resented me for that a little bit because he wanted to get his raw MC-type shit out. I helped him polish his style."
Blu still manages to talk a gang of shit on Below the Heavens. On the first track, "My World Is," he brags, "Back when I was a young spitter bitches used to ask me to kick a flow to them. Next thing you know I'm strokin' 'em." But he's also disarmingly sensitive and poetic. On "Simply Amazin'<0x2009>" he describes rapping "until I buckle and become winded / And all the air from out my lungs slips into the sky like weed smoke." On "The Narrow Path," he admits, "I need a pen, I need a pad, I need a place to go, to get this shit lifted off of my soul." Through deft linguistics, Blu yearns for better days, rapping to not only save his life, but improve it.
Back in January, Blu told me: "As I started formuutf8g the album, it seemed to be like a collection of my life on earth, which is striving to make it to heaven. I felt since that was what the record was turning out to be about, I felt the title fit in both ways." When Blu said "both ways," he referred to heaven on earth as well as the spiritual afterlife.