In the early 2010s, Los Angeles rapper-producer Blu went from a scrappy, true-blue hip-hop devotee with a Warner Records deal to California beat scene and underground hermit. He seemed determined to play against type, cranking out projects under different names and even scuffling with other rappers on Twitter. But in the years since 2015’s Bad Neighbor, his collaborative album with Madlib and M.E.D., he started embracing his gifts as a world-weary and lyrically agile everyman. On Bad News, his first full-length link-up with Real Bad Man, he channels his best work by kicking jaunty battle raps and probing everyday anecdotes.
Real Bad Man, a streetwear brand and label spearheaded by ex-Stüssy art director Adam Weissman, has been releasing compilations since 2020, when they dropped the first two volumes of their no-frills boom-bap series On High Alert. The collective’s production is workmanlike and occasionally zany, recalling the tongue-in-cheek qualities of Deltron 3030-era Dan the Automator, or perhaps the more colorful corners of the Alchemist’s early 2000s beat tapes. Both RBM and Blu are prolific classicists, but they are still occasionally adaptable. On Bad News, these strengths make them a compelling pair.
Few rappers are as intricately introspective as Blu is. As a writer, he’s confident and brash, bending rhyme schemes and meters into pretzels. Take the second verse of “Aladdin,” a latticework of phonetics and slant rhymes which features Cali-specific boasts and bars about winning someone’s shoes in what’s implied to be a basketball game. His skills pop just as much when he’s steering through rain clouds, like on the standout “The Hurt,” where he contemplates whether to hang up the mic and go back to school. Rapping about retirement and your struggle to own a home isn’t exactly sexy, but Blu’s lively way with words confirms he was born to spit.
RBM’s beats—which are built on everything from maudlin violin strings to creaking pianos and wandering bass arpeggios—provide Blu with sturdy ground to kick his shit. They’re all handsome and complement Blu’s flows well, but they shine more when RBM is willing to get a little kooky. This mostly comes when RBM punctuates certain clichés with knowing, on-the-nose samples. On “The Golden Rule,” an errant bell ring from a boxing match chimes in before Blu and C.L. Smooth mention a boxing championship bout. “Aladdin” takes this approach further: Whirring sci-fi synths fit for an episode of Hello Tomorrow! and nose-twitching tinkles from Bewitched preface Blu’s claim that he “grants wishes like a genie.” It’s a restrained type of self-awareness, a light wink and nudge that doesn’t feel too overbearing.
No matter what demons he may be wrestling with, Blu always finds solace in rapping. He sounds rejuvenated trading bars alongside longtime collaborators Cashus King and Donel Smokes on “Fall of Rome,” and on “Hebrews,” he sketches his relationship to faith by connecting dots between religious parables. He’s come a long way from waiting for the bus in the rain, having carved out a niche for himself within the fickle world of indie rap. While Bad News isn’t revelatory for either Blu or Real Bad Man, it proves they’re both still able to generate sparks even when they’re just having fun.