Southern California native Johnson Barnes lives like a nomad. In his 25 years, the rising MC known as Blu has lived in dozens of cities throughout SoCal, from L.A. to Long Beach, Chino to Claremont. But being constantly on the move isn’t the only reason Blu is nomadic. He’s also leading the way for a new generation of hip-hop artists who refuse to be confined to working with one group.
In just over a year after being introduced to the world, Blu has released three well-received albums: 2007’s Below the Heavens with Emanon producer Exile, this year’s The Piece Talks with Detroit producer-on-the-mic Ta’Raach (collectively known as C.R.A.C.), and most recently Johnson&Jonson, his collaboration with Cali beatsmith Mainframe. And before Blu completes his forthcoming solo debut, he’s trying to broaden his sonic palette as much as possible.
“When you’re creating something by yourself you have an ability to make something different, but it’s definitely gonna be different with someone else’s input in it,” Blu says of his desire to collaborate. “I strive for that. That helps. That keeps me hungry. It keeps me on my toes. I always learn more with each producer I work with.”
For most people outside of California, Below the Heavens was the first full recording heard from Blu. With Exile’s fresh, West Coast soul-drenched beats as the foundation, Blu made this album a highly personal effort. It plays like an abridged autobiography of his first 22 years, covering snapshots of his family life, relationships, and his induction into rapping.
Blu didn’t have much exposure to hip-hop growing up, because his mother and his stepfather, a pastor, purposely kept it away from him. Instead, he was exposed to the sounds of Al Green and other soul stars, which may explain why songs from Below the Heavens like “First Things First,” are so smoothed out. But in the late-’90s, when Blu moved in with his dad while attending high school, he was introduced to the sounds of 2Pac and Too $hort — perhaps where he learned some of his swagger heard on heaters like “Simply Amazing.”
Despite being a late bloomer, once he began writing his own raps he couldn’t stop. And when some drama at home escalated, Blu found solace in hip-hop — especially after dropping out of school. “I was just ditchin’ everyday anyway, going to the homey’s crib, fuckin’ freestyling, and we would make up fake radio shows on this four-track,” recalls Blu. “I was like, ‘Man, you know what? Fuck the crib, fuck school, fuck all this shit. I’m just gonna rap.’ And not even professionally. I really didn’t think too far into life.”
A few years after that revelation, Blu was introduced to Exile through their mutual friend Aloe Blacc (from Emanon), and the two hit it off right away. A couple of months later, their collective debut was off the ground. During the creation of Below the Heavens, Blu continued to withdraw from his family, but at the same time the recording was written with his parents in mind. On “Cold Hearted,” in particular, he retells the domestic violence he witnessed in his house and how his immediate reaction was to become a hard knock.
“I actually didn’t talk to [my family] for like three years for most of the creation on Below the Heavens,” he recalls. “That’s why I reflect on family a lot on that record. Because they weren’t in my life too much.”
Considering how introspective Blu gets on his debut, even when he’s just talking about how he approaches women, the MC definitely caught his fans off guard in the spring, when he released The Piece Talks with Ta’Raach. Going by C.R.A.C. (pronounced “crass”), the two finished their free-flowing album in only a week, and it shows — in a good way. Consistently surprising, the album captures light lo-fi vibes on “Love Don’t” but then drastically changes course on the dirty Detroit boom-bap-laden cut “Respect.”
“With Exile we were more focused on the message we were gettin’ across, and with Ta’Raach it was more so the energy in the room, trying to convey that,” says Blu. “It was a pretty crazy experience between the two.”
Even amid the quick turnaround from one project to the next, Blu doesn’t consider his albums with Exile and Ta’Raach to be one-time side projects. In fact, he’s already got another 12-inch single with Exile on the way. But at the moment, the MC is pushing his Johnson&Jonson album with Mainframe, which unlike the C.R.A.C. project features more traditional, loop-based hip-hop — such as that heard on the melodic single “Bout It Bout It.” What’s impossible to ignore about his latest album, though, is how on songs like “Up All Night” he’s found a way to delve into storytelling while showcasing more swagger than ever.
Given his track record of continually changing lanes both lyrically and sonically, though, it’s not likely Blu’s solo debut will closely resemble material from Johnson&Jonson or any of his past work. As he says, “I want it to be a great record, so I’m letting topics pile up in my mind, just typing ’em up and I’m coming up with ideas.”
He’s also working on a rock album, and the debut of his own production work is forthcoming, featured on, among others, tracks by New York City act Sene. If Blu’s discography is strikingly divergent, it’s because that’s how he planned it.
“I wanted to open up my spectrum early so people won’t think I’m flipping the script later on,” he explains. “I have a rock album with John from Johnson&Jonson and I was like, ‘If they’re not ready for the C.R.A.C. record, they’re definitely not ready for me to drop this rock record.’ So we’re trying to strategically figure out how to present each release at the right time. I just wanted to open it up real wide at first so I have enough space to dance in between.”