Does Blueface know how to rap? As in: Is he even capable of it? That’s been the question that’s followed the 22-year-old LA rapper since he started blowing up a couple of months ago. This isn’t a question of people not liking Blueface’s rap style, or wondering why younger generations of rap always stick with derivative subject matters, or any of the usual complaints that people hurl at young rappers as they’re first getting famous. The question isn’t even whether Blueface raps well. The question is whether he has even the most basic command of the skill of rapping. It’s a fun thing to think about.
Blueface is a phenomenon. It’s been about four months since Worldstar posted his video for “Respect My Crypn,” the clip that kicked off his viral rise. But now Blueface’s videos are getting millions upon millions of hits. As I’m writing this, “Thotiana,” a 2018 mixtape track, has just shot up to #28 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it seems certain to go a whole lot higher. Blueface is currently collecting all the established-rapper cosigns — Drake, Kendrick Lamar — that every young rap sensation must collect. And he’s signed with Cash Money, making him just the latest in a long line of street-rap stars to buy into Birdman’s line of bullshit. (So that’s one rap tradition he’s following, anyway.) And Blueface has accomplished all of this without showing even the tiniest inkling of conventional rap skill, which, in a way, makes his meteoric rise even more impressive.
The thing that people get hung up on is the offbeat flow. Blueface says that he writes to beats, but when he raps, he ignores beats almost completely. Instead, his words come out in hasty jumbles, sudden and excited rushes. Sometimes, that voice will jump into a high-pitched yip, like a dog who really wants to go outside. Again and again, he insists that he doesn’t even care about rap: “I just do this on the weekend.” It’s a boast. Blueface doesn’t care. Also: “I could sit here and talk offbeat, my shit still slap like a pimp on his worst day.” He’s right, of course.
If you fully submit to what Blueface is doing, if you stop trying to force him to fit predetermined rules and just accept his style for what it is, Blueface’s music is ridiculously fun. Famous Cryp, the mixtape that he released last year, is 10 songs long, and it’s only 21 minutes. Blueface never puts more than one verse on a song. He raps over cheap, simplistic West Coast beats. There’s a punk energy to the whole thing: Short songs, indifferent recording quality, a complete lack of technical chops. And like the best punk bands, Blueface gets over on hooks, immediacy, and personality.
There are plenty of rap precedents for what Blueface is doing, and we’ll get to those. But Blueface reminds me more of the late ’70s party comedian Rudy Ray Moore than he does of any particular rapper. (His delivery is more Katt Williams than Rudy Ray Moore, but that’s still a similar skill set at work.) If you ever seen Rudy Ray Moore in one of no-budget ’70s movies — Dolemite, The Human Tornado, Disco Godfather — there’s a scene where he “raps,” telling some long ribald story that sort of rhymes and never fits any earthly meter. Blueface does that. Like Rudy Ray Moore, he mostly talks about sex and violence, and he does it with a wild and unpredictable sense of humor. And he’s funny. You probably won’t feel good about yourself for laughing at the shit that Blueface talks, but you might laugh anyway.
Famous Cryp is utterly packed with socially irresponsible double-take punchlines. Baby, you see this face tat? Blueface doesn’t want a job. He gets paid to show up like a fuckin’ god. He doesn’t mean to be mean, but he’s got pornstar dick, bet you feel it in your spleen. You’s a goof troop; he knows you’ve heard of him, but he ain’t never heard of you. He gets onstage and gets to orchestrating a choir. He eats pussy with his grill in. Check the Yelp review: He gets up like Viagra. Yeah, aight, get her wetter than Niagara. (I don’t know why, but “check the Yelp review” kills me.)
Blueface’s out-of-nowhere success serves as a good reminder of a couple of important points. The first point: Technical rap skill is not important. It’s a cool skill to have, and people have made careers by mastering it. But generally, when people are listening to rap, they aren’t doing it to marvel at a rapper’s technique. They’re doing it because they’re responding to personality. Confidence is the most important quality any rapper can have. Blueface, a former star high-school quarterback, has ridiculous levels of confidence. He may or may not be able to continue thriving, especially if he keeps flaunting gang affiliations or getting himself arrested. (In October, after being robbed at a gas station and giving chase, Blueface was arrested for shooting at an occupied vehicle. A few days ago, he was arrested again, this time for felony gun possession.) But if he can calm down while keeping that confidence up, he’ll be fine.
The second point: Offbeat rapping has always been with us. It’s been around for decades. RZA has never rapped on-beat in his entire life. Neither has Silkk The Shocker. In 2002, I walked out of an El-P/Aesop Rock show profoundly annoyed; I’d just paid $14, and I hadn’t heard anyone rap on-beat the entire night. And Blueface is part of a long lineage of West Coast rappers who ignore the beat whenever it suits them. That’s been happening in the Bay Area for generations. Consider the way E-40 has been veering all over beats since the ’90s, jumping in and out whenever it suits him. But that’s been happening in Blueface’s LA hometown, too. DJ Quik does it, and Quik’s regular collaborator Suga Free raps offbeat with a high-pitched, gutter-minded flair that feels like a distant ancestor to what Blueface is doing now. Blueface might do it more crudely than most, but he’s fully within a certain rap tradition.
And then there’s G Herbo. Last year, the Chicago rapper kicked off a quick fad when he freestyled over Three 6 Mafia’s “Who Run It” instrumental; dozens of “Who Run It” freestyles followed. But Herbo’s “Who Run It” freestyle barely even interacts with that beat. Herbo knows how to rap in the pocket when he wants, and in the early days of his career, he showed a total mastery of it. (Think about what he did on Nicki Minaj’s “Chiraq.”) But Herbo has found a whole new expressive tool in letting his voice fly all around the beat.
Last week, Herbo released Still Swervin, his second collaborative album with the Atlanta producer Southside. Herbo stays off-beat all over that album, but he uses that flow in ways that have nothing to do with what Blueface does. Blueface uses his offbeat flow to convey a wild, chaotic excitement that verges on Looney Toons silliness. Herbo, on the other hand, uses it to convey pain. Herbo’s only 23, a year older than Blueface, but his voice is a wizened, wounded croak. And he conveys stress, heartbreak, trauma. He can flex when he wants to, but his great project is to get you to realize how hopeless it is to grow up amidst violence, watching your friends get gunned down.
On Still Swervin, Herbo talks about seeing friends die in the middle of street-corner dice games. He talks about skipping school to go to a funeral. He talks about drugs as a coping mechanism: “Gotta stay high cuz I think too much, I get to tripping.” He talks about regret: “Moved out my grandma crib / Right out front, used to get in shootouts / I was just a kid / Shoulda got some money, bought you a house, and now you dead.” He talks about unimaginable tragedy: “Slim ain’t never see his son ‘fore he died, that shit hit me / I ain’t cried in a minute, I be crying, shit be hitting me.”
Herbo knows what he’s doing. Those offbeat flows convey a different kind of chaos: The kind where you can’t depend on anything, where your world could be ripped apart at any moment. His offbeat flows are an artistic choice. I don’t know whether Blueface’s offbeat flows are an artistic choice, but it doesn’t matter because his shit slaps. The offbeat flow isn’t the latest plague that’s descended upon rap. It’s one technique among many. And if offbeat rapping becomes a dominant trend in 2019 (a real possibility), it won’t be the apocalypse. It’ll just be a new iteration of an old thing.
1. Blu & Oh No: “The Lost Angels Anthem”
Blu is a vastly important and influential voice in the last generation of West Coast rap, and we’re about to get a whole album of him rapping over Oh No beats. We should be excited about that, and this makes that very clear.
2. Blockhead: “Slippery Slope” (Feat. billy woods, Open Mike Eagle, & Breezly Brewin)
Here, we have three vastly different underground-rap voices, all finding intersection points over a gorgeously contemplative beat from a towering late-’90s indie-rap producer who hasn’t lost a step. Miracles happen.
3. Germ: “Bussdown” (Feat. OhGeesy)
There is an art to sounding utterly, overwhelmingly bored while still rapping your ass off. OhGeesy, from Shoreline Mafia, has mastered it.
4. Lansky Jones: “Know The Type” (Feat. CJ Fly & Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire)
Throwbacky New York boom-bap sounds so much better when it’s chilly and low-key, when there’s no bring-it-back anxiety radiating everywhere. Also, “I’m a beast, boy, so I’m used to shape-shifting” is a good punchline.
5. Just Juice: “Smooth”
Apparently, being a complete fucking nerd is no longer any kind of obstacle to becoming a rapper. Maybe that’s a good thing? Because this goes.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Travis Scott must be able to carry like ten potions in that belt. Smart. Tactical
— Patrick Monahan (@pattymo) February 4, 2019
Travis Scott having an inferno match with Kane with this stage set
— Ahmed/NBA is scared of Bron and Rich Paul (@big_business_) February 4, 2019
The way Adam Levine looks when he is sort of half-dancing very near a famous rapper. That’s how I feel all the time.
— Sean Clements (@SeanClements) February 4, 2019