Five years ago, Blu was primed to be the next great West Coast rapper. In 2007, he and producer Exile released Below the Heavens, a tightly composed gem celebrated by backpack heads as ardently as Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (and featuring an early appearance from future R&B star Miguel). Then he delivered a pair of indie hits with producers Ta'Raach (C.R.A.C.'s The Piece Talks) and Mainframe (Johnson & Jonson). After earning a spot on XXL's coveted 2008 Freshmen Class list, he signed a deal with Warner Bros. Records.
Admirers of Below the Heavens expected a superior follow-up that would cement and further his popularity, like when Kendrick Lamar followed Section.80 with good kid, m.A.A.d city. (It's a comparison Blu is probably sick of hearing.) Instead, he proceeded to drop strange .ZIP files through MySpace and various websites. Branded with his New World Color logo, these emissions were mostly self-produced, striated with tape hiss, dusty soul loops, movie dialogue snippets and rambling lyrics. And when the Warner Bros. album never appeared -- or rather, when Blu tossed out CD-Rs of NoYork! to the crowd at the 2011 Rock the Bells Festival tour, auguring the end of his relationship with the label -- it quickly became apparent that these bedroom raps were more than just an appetizer to the Big Major Label Album.
Many of these Internet albums have seen retail release, including Jesus and Her Favorite Colo(u)r. This year, indie label Nature Sounds released an official edition of York with a different track listing than the leaked Warner Bros. version. Responses to them all have been mixed due to their (perhaps deliberately) ruddy, uneven quality. While his fans continue to support the newer, less predictable Blu, they clearly treasure their memories of the "blu collar worker" from Below the Heavens.
Still, it took artistic courage to eschew a traditional indie-to-majors career path in favor of a heavily blunted and improvisatory aesthetic that draws inspiration from Flying Lotus' cosmic beat grammar and J Dilla's and Madlib's loop-digging excursions. Even a reunion album with Exile, Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, was more offhand and slushy than expected.
In short, no one really knows what to make of Blu and his lo-fi experiments. But it's a fascinating evolution.