With their second collaborative project, this rapper/producer duo offer a well-studied paean to hip-hop’s past. You could call it a boom baptism.
At this point, there are few artists capable of doing justice to the styles and sounds rap gone by, but West Coast rapper Blu and East Coast producer Nottz are among the most proficient historians left in the game. Blu, 33, is a product of both gangsta rap and underground consciousness who credits Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” the 1994 lament about hip-hop losing its original essence, with changing his life. Nottz, 39, is a student of Dilla, Diamond D, Pete Rock, and Dr. Dre who was raised in the competitive Virginia beatmaking scene that spawned Timbaland and the Neptunes before making his name providing no-nonsense beats to everyone from Ghostface to Snoop across the last 18 years.
Blu and Nottz’s first collaborative project, 2014’s Gods in the Spirit EP, mostly got lost in the shuffle, surrounded by individual triumphs like Nottz’s brutally raw beat for Pusha T and Kendrick Lamar’s “Nosetalgia” and the official release of Blu’s acclaimed NoYork! album. But Gods in the Spirit was a successful trial run for the pairing, reminiscent of Nottz’s early work for Busta Rhymes and Rah Digga, and loaded with sampled strings and compact raps. The duo’s latest tag-team effort, Titans in the Flesh, is a spiritual successor to that release.
Blu has a long history of working on projects with a single producer, including this year’s Crenshaw Jezebel with Ray West, last year’s Bad Neighbor with Madlib (alongside M.E.D.), and two albums with Exile, including his most well-received project, Below the Heavens. This streak suggests that Blu likes chemistry and continuity, structure and routine. And of the producers Blu has worked with, none are more committed to a singular method than Nottz, who almost exclusively toys with cinematic sounds, fashioning them into set-dressing for craggy thumpers that chug along thanks, in part, to conservative loops compressed on his drum machine. Nottz’s technique has grown predictable, but it’s still remarkably effective, and it’s perfectly suited for Blu, whose jump-cutting raps make use of the extra space afforded by open arrangements. Side-by-side, they’re classicists emblematic of the legendary soul-and-substance rapper-producer duos of rap’s Golden Era—teams like Gangstarr and Pete Rock & CL Smooth.
Titans in the Flesh doesn’t look to do anything differently than its predecessor, but it tweaks the process in spots—the production is bigger, the posse cuts are deeper, the rapping is far more clinical—and it commits to the duo’s tendencies at full tilt, all in the service of creating a cool throwback. This is a complete submersion into hard-hitting traditionalist rap that delivers the knock, especially on “To the East” and “Giant Steps,” which even has a Premier-esque scratch-and-sample hook. As a producer, Nottz samples everything from the Psycho score to ABBA B-sides with the intent to condense big sounds into tight casings. The production is decidedly no-frills, particularly on dusty-drummed slappers like “The Truth” and “Atlantis.” Meanwhile, Blu performs in his usual herky-jerky style, which splits phrases at their joints: “Django of the star spangle/My chain dangle/The city of the lost angels.” The whole thing is familiar—sometimes maddeningly so—but the cuts vary just enough to keep the mind flickering for connections, and to keep nostalgia’s pull just out of grasp. This is hip-hop broken down to its core elements: turntablism, cranking loops, bars. It’s a rap purist manifesto.
Pearce, Sheldon. “Blu/Nottz Titans in the Flesh” July 25, 2016 http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/22171-titans-in-the-flesh