Friday, November 18, 2016

Blu & Union Analogtronics - Cheetah In The City Review

Had Cheetah In The City been released six days earlier, Blu, the busy underground emcee, would've been able to lay claim to five officially released projects in the span of 365 days. That's a serious travelog for such a veteran, who's been around, on and off, rising and fading in popularity, ever since his classic debut Below The Heavens dropped in 2007. Since 2015's Bad Neighbor, a record that saw him team up with legendary beat konducta Madlib and fellow California rapper M.E.D., Blu has released collaborations with Ray West (Crenshaw Jezebel), Nottz (Titans In The Flesh), and Fate (Open Your Optics To Optimism). All three of these EP's brought different styles, along with different levels of success. On Cheetah In The City, his first LP of the year, Blu teams up with French producers Union Analogtronics, who, one could argue, wasted a shot at notoriety with his disappointing 2012 debut, a record that saw Talib Kweli, MF DOOM, and Elzhi, amongst others, appear for original features. Will his collaboration with Blu, someone who's been trying to elevate the careers of under-discussed producers, change the quickly fading perception of him? If the sloppy, unsure, constantly deviating Cheetah In The City is anything to go by; no.

However, Cheetah doesn't start off on rocky footing, as the thunderous lead single 'LA Counting' sees Blu somehow manage a full-blown street anthem. Typically a conscious rapper, 'LA Counting' isn't exactly Blu's forte, and you'll come to see why as Cheetah progresses. But in the album's first three minutes, Blu and Union seem as confident as ever, side-stepping over a funky, West Coast beat that doesn't sound unlike a sophisticated Hyphy track. Think The Cool Kids, remember them? It's breezy, sly, and even comes equip with some highly-accentuated autotune a la 'California Love.' As evident by the nontraditional EP, that was really just nine remixes of the same track, earlier this year, 'LA Counting' was what Blu and Union based their foundation off of. The majority of tracks that ensue attempt to scaffold the unscalable precedent that opener sets, so with duds like 'French Kiss,' 'Cheetah,' and 'The Factory,' we're treated with second hand helping's that are painfully subpar. Union's production work in particular, with the style he's going for, only works if the basis comes passionately. 'LA Counting' seems real, like the two teaming up and knocking it out of the park on the first try. Everything else seems like dire replication.

That's only for the G-Funk street anthems though. And while more than half the LP is loaded with them, they're not overly abundant. Taking the place elsewhere are slower jams that incorporate various R&B singers, whether it's Chat on 'French Kiss,' Joro on 'Workin,' or Olivier DaySoul on 'City Dreams.' It's in cases like these that I'm reminded of Lupe Fiasco's worst works, where he eschews whatever's churning around in his brain for sappy, boiled down Hip-Hop/R&B crossovers. 'City Dreams' is the biggest offender of this and reeks of distilled conventionalism's. Making matters worse are Blu's lyrics, a sore spot in the wake of the three EP's which showcased Blu's talents through and through. Often times on Cheetah it feels as if he's taking the easy way out, failing to make any grand statements (something he's prone to do), choosing instead to resort to Hip-Hop tropes as seen last on 2014's Good To Be Home. Some choice cuts include 'Cheetah's' "I never went to high school, cause I be at school high," 'The Factory's' "new whips and chains, the new gang with the bang," and 'Sunny's' "she shaking with the boom boom, hoping we can boom boom." That's Wiz Khalifa quality there.

Not only is this not the Blu that dipped onto the scene a decade ago, it's not even the Blu we've seen in previous iterations this year. What can't be denied is the rapper's commitment to staying on script and following a theme, as evident by his constant one-off producer collaborations. While Ray West brought a slick Soul approach, Nottz dialed up the kookiness, and Fate delved into atmosphere, Union Analogtronics teems his tracks with unbridled electricity. The abundance of synths and mechanical oddities isn't unknown to Blu, as the rapper previously encountered the style on his divisive 2011 album NoYork!, which, as with many of his releases, went through turmoil before officially reaching listeners. The slight Experimental edge found on NoYork! has been trimmed a bit here, making way for more basic West Coast/Boom Bap inclusion. And when that unison works, you get tracks like 'One Two' or 'Weekends,' which succeed by witnessing Blu's traditional flows and lyrics move swiftly over beats that seem, on the surface, chaotic as ever. In this regard, arguably the only G-Funk track that works, 'Don't Trip,' does so because of a strict commitment to the theme, even though it would've sounded more apt on YG's latest album.

This isn't to say Union Analogtronics' production isn't unfounded, it's just primarily tasteless. And I don't mean that with harsh connotations either, it's just this brand of generic Electro-Boom Bap came and went within five years for a reason. The longevity of such a style is minimal. The Electronic genre is typically known for its expansive arsenal of opportunities, being able to move drastically throughout its musical scope is a primary drawing point of the genre. On Cheetah, Union Analogtronics puts it in a box, confining it to whatever Boom Bap is capable of, which, as we all know, is not that much. Instrumentation that could been seen as experimental, let's say with what Death Grips or clipping. are doing, find themselves stuck in ordinary measures, surrounded by music that feels limited. That's why, apart from standout 'LA Counting,' the short, instrumental interlude 'Sleepin' is easily the best production work here. The sound feels natural, at ease, and able to drift around whatever Union throws at it. Everything else is boxed into something it shouldn't be, including Blu, which makes that wild cheetah stuck in the city all too pertinent.

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