(Today's Reader Review comes from frequent contributor Justa, who decided to write about blogger favorite Blu by taking the road less traveled, eschewing the obvious choice in favor of his collaboration with Mainframe, Johnson & Jonson. Leave your thoughts for Justa below.)
For those who would deem themselves “Hip Hop Heads”, Johnson Lee Barnes, a/k/a Blu, is no stranger to you. Below The Heavens, his 2007 collaborative album with producer Exile, is touted in some circles as the second coming of Jesuchristo (if you let them tell it). Or, perhaps more accurately, it's just a really good rap album that was released seven years ago, and the praise thrust upon it has rendered almost beyond critique. (That's not the reason why it hasn't appeared on the site yet, but for now I'm going to steal that line. Thanks, Justa!)
Which is why I chose a different Blu project to review, one which was actually recorded a year before Below The Heavens, but released afterward, with the assistance of Los Angeles-based producer/rapper/(now) label director Mainframe. While Below The Heavens stole the hearts of frequent Okayplayer readers, MySpace fans (remember those?), and others across the Internet, Blu and Mainframe's Johnson & Jonson was released to much less fanfare and far less dickriding. The album cover only featured a plastic, red baby doll with no words printed (except for the Johnson & Jonson name on the side), so it's possible that some of the more lazy Blu fans were most likely unaware of this project's existence.
Johnson & Jonson is made up of production stemming from sampled loops, most of which were likely dug up during plenty of nights spent at home (see: broke) before Below The Heavens empowered Blu with global bookings, as well as twice-weekly paid meals at places that aren’t Denny’s. Which could be a good thing, because creativity might have freely flowed due the limited nature of outside expectations (and influence of money), or a bad thing, in that they could have been sitting a dirty living room, filled with miscellaneous, indescribable filth most likely including, but not limited to, Burger King wrappers, 7- Eleven cups, and ketchup & mustard-stained past issues of The Source. They also were probably under the influence of a little too much Mary Jane.
Let’s see how well this album plays out.
Look Max, no intro! It’s always a good thing when album starts out with actual music. An up-tempo, dusty rock loop accompanies the duo trading off bars. Mid-song, the loop morphs into something a little more downbeat, and Blu basically just ”goes in” on some solo emcee shit. If this is any indicator of what's in store, I'm going to have get out my thesaurus, so that I can describe Blu’s flows for each track that follows.
2. UP ALL NIGHT
This song was my first exposure to this project many moons ago. The title is appropriate, as it is somehow able to capture the feeling of “one of those nights”, or, as that Dave Chappelle skit chronicled/mocked it, “guys night out”. Blu spits a misogyny-appropriate (juxtaposition if I ever heard it) freestyle to accompany the kind of filthy/grimy/1970’s blaxploitation-sounding loop Mainframe has crafted. Weird shots fired at Michael Jackson, some drunken banter, and tales of trying to get tail are all included in this lyrical exercise, which is why I think this song should be a staple in every college comedy from here on out. Someone get me Hollywood on the phone. Tell them that I have ideas!
3. HALF A KNOT
Those that appreciate “real” rap will enjoy the production on this one mos def:a dusty funk loop, with classic drums taken straight from 1988. Blu delivers a pretty solid verse as well, of course. No complaints here.
4. MAMA TOLD ME
The beats on this project are definitely golden-age inspired excellence. The quirky jazz-fusion loop on “Mama Told Me” is just too much fun to not enjoy. Basically this song bangs! Which has me wondering: outside of the high cost of clearing all of the samples, why don't Blu and Mainframe work together more often?
5. THE GUSTO ROOM (FEAT. STAND UP COMEDY BY BOBO LAMB as JACK JOHNSON)
The first concept track, which could have been a tragedy, as most conceptual songs seem to be under- or over-thought in the genre. This, on the other hand, is neither, so my praise continues as a casino scenario is nicely recreated with the rhymes of both Blu and Mainframe and with Bobo Lamb's comedic interruptions. I see no faults here.
We ditch the casino for a club setting. A smooth, soulful, lounge-y backdrop grooves along as we hear Blu basically talk about stuntin’ at the club. I would suggest that these last two songs could have benefited from an Alkaholiks feature if that were possible (in a perfect world). Not that this track isn’t fresh already, but can't you just see Tash and J-Ro adding even more playfulness to it? Oh, the what-ifs.
7. THE ONLY WAY
Blu lays out his concerns, questions and plans over Mainframe's music. “The Only Way” is much more personal, and yet it doesn’t take away from the listening experience of the project as a whole. This will definitely appeal to those f you who enjoyed Below the Heavens.
8. IN THE BUILDING (FEAT. MIGUEL as JONTEL JOHNSON)
A soulful interlude of sorts featuring Miguel (yes, the same Miguel who had that hit song last year) singing the verses while Blu performs emcee hypeman duties. While most hip hop heads tend to turn away from singing, I should let you two readers out there know that you will not be disappointed by this Curtis Mayfield- and the Impressions-inspired joint. Give this one a chance.
9. BOUT IT, BOUT IT
A pass-the-mic, back-and-forth affair is always a welcome affair in my book, and this track brings the best that exchange can offer as Mainframe pops back up on the rap side of things over this Middle Eastern string loop. My only complaint is the length: only two minutes!?! Can I get a little bit more, please? A dope song nonetheless. No C-Murder references or Master P guest appearances, either, which is what I obviously gleamed from just looking at that title. Tangent over, let’s move on.
10. SPELL CHECK (FEAT. GANG SIGN LANGUAGE BY BIG D MENACE)
Can the drummer get some? Damn, this beat is too funky. More of that 1988-style gold for you. Blu and Mainframe ain’t messing around on this album. This track bangs!
11. LONG TIME GONE
Blu recollects old memories and some of his experiences over a more laid-back loop. Sade would feel right at home on this beat. How is it possible that I'm this far into the album and have yet to hear a bad track?
12. STILL UP ALL NIGHT (FEAT. CO$$ as TROY JOHNSON)
A remix of sorts, I suppose, to the earlier “Up All Night”. This take has more energy to it, the beat a little more swing. Co$$ fills in on emcee duties and doesn't disappoint at all.
13. A PERFECT PICTURE
While I was a fan of the actual rapping on this one, Mainframe's beat was a little too bland for me. The rhymes take up less than two minutes, but the song itself feels like it lasts forever in all of the worst ways, thanks to a lack of anything interesting happening on the production side. The first real misstep I have been able to detect.
14. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE (FEAT. RAPS BY SUMOCH as RANDY JOHNSON)
Another pass-the-mic affair. This time we have Randy (I have no idea who this is, either) and Mainframe alongside Blu, of course. No drums are included on this one, but it still sounds so good. The horn loop is great, and of course the flows are on point. I wonder if this was inspired by Kevin Garnett famously shouting “Anything Is Possssssssssible!”? One can only hope.
15. THE OATH
“Students ain’t doing it right / Ever since The Teacher started doing it for Christ.” Remember when KRS-One dropped that Spiritual Minded album? If you do, please don’t ask Max to review it; I just liked that reference. The final song on this project features an uplifting, serene horn sample were Blu delivers his declaration for what he is going to do in the game, rapping like there is no tomorrow for a little over two minutes.
Johnson & Jonson ends with a hidden bonus track.
HOLD ON JOHN
Wait, what? A John Lennon sample? Dope! Blu gets his existential-worldview on with this one. As well he should: it’s a Lennon sample for Christ's sake! A great end to this affair.
THE LAST WORD: Why Johnson & Jonson doesn't receive the accolades that Below the Heavens has is beyond me. This project has very few flaws, much less so than Below the Heavens I would argue; it holds up to hip hop purist standards; and it has no filler, no unnecessary features, or frontin' (I added that last one to create a proper F.F.F. acronym). The strength of Johnson & Jonson lies in the freedom that Blu and Mainframe displayed in both creation and execution. An ode (of sorts) to De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, Johnson & Jonson believes that there aren’t any hard and fast rules in hip hop, and allows creativity to shine in the experimentation with samples, concepts, and is just plain fun, which is what this culture is all about, right? For those who are disappointed in the post-Below The Heavens projects from Blu (I'm not including myself in that classification), you should be listening to this album on a much more regular basis. Johnson & Jonson has aged very well, I must say: pretty much every song aside from “A Perfect Picture” is solid. There is no excuse, aside from your rent being late: why is this not in your library? Cop this one now!
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)