MusicWeekend

The Limits of a Rapper’s Comedy

Lunging for the most obvious jokes on Find the Beat, Blueface is desperate to be heard and understood.

Blueface, Find the Beat

The new Blueface album offers a lesson in the limits of comedy. On Find the Beat, out since March, the Los Angeles rapper tells bad jokes with easy punchlines, underlines them three times in red pen, and adds several exclamation points just to make sure you notice. Finally he asks: “Did you get it?” And then, plaintively, “Was it funny?”

For those of us who love the ridiculous, Blueface was recently the most entertaining rapper in the game. While remaining within the stylistic conventions of West Coast gangsta rap, he took his babbling, spastic flow to such an extreme that he conjured rhythmic fireworks. Too impatient to wait for the beat to catch up, he just blurted out his lines and jumped ahead even further. Rather than creating a mess, or the impression of incompetence, this approach captured a dizzy enthusiasm, a sense that he was running circles around you and could speed off in any direction. (His closest spiritual predecessor, in both form and mood, is E-40.)

He was also the silliest of lyricists, delighting in sexual and scatalogical puns that stretch hip-hop’s tolerance for figurative language (“I’m too cocky baby cause I got two cocks” places him in a venerable rap tradition of wordplay at the expense of being literal). Far from parody, short mixtapes like Famous Cryp (2018) and the ferocious Dirt Bag (2019) made fabulous party music.

Predictably, his success inspired a number of rap traditionalists to complain about Blueface rapping “off beat,” as if rappers must confine themselves in rhythmic boxes. Describing the dancer Storyboard P in The Wire, Greg Tate once wrote, “At moments of revolution in artistic form, innovation frequently involves discarding flashy displays of technique. The reduction of ostentatious moves in favor of subtler ones is often read as laziness or limited ability.” When critics insist on technical facility as an end in itself, they confirm this.

With Find the Beat, his first official studio album, Blueface announces proudly and unambiguously his role as jester. From the album’s title to its cover — which portrays Blueface as the Tin Man standing in front of a yellow brick road leading to The Beat — Find the Beat takes his shtick a step further, to its logical conclusion of total absurdity.

Alas, every song lands with a dead thud. In “Holy Moly,” a list of words that rhyme with its title (“roly,” “poly,” and so on), and “Obama,” in which he fails to rhyme the names of American presidents, his gimmicks do not expand into songs. Blueface does find a song in, say, “Carne Asada,” but he assumes a terrible Spanish accent and cracks lazy puns about Mexican food (“I put my carne in asada” must be a euphemism for something, although it’s subtler than “She wanna have sex with me cause I’m succsexful”).

Blueface, Dirt Bag

Previously, Blueface and his producers have assembled rickety structures from spindly piano loops and deep thumping bass — a sonic landscape whose sparsity gives him room to coast and cartwheel. Here, the beats aim for a louder sensationalism: “Vibe” marches over shrill orchestral brass, while the tinny saxophone on “Obama” panders to a received idea of sleazy glamour. Most lethally, his flow has flattened; often he drones in a tired monotone, riding the same pattern throughout entire songs. “Weekend” is the album’s tightest banger, gliding over a plinky keyboard hook that would match Blueface’s cadence if he weren’t dragging his metrical feet.

As an artist who inspires the question, “Is he for real?” Blueface has now found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to respond. Artists caught in this dilemma usually say “Yes,” and go in a more serious direction to prove their purpose (consider how quickly PC Music devolved into standard triumphalist, festival-ready EDM). Blueface has answered with a resounding “No!” but what made Blueface so exciting was the prospect that this inventive joker could be making commercial rap music. To hear him cackling over beats that could play on hip-hop radio was to witness an irrepressible energy materializing on the horizon, a sense that he could tip the whole genre’s rhythmic balance into disarray.

Dirt Bag, his sharpest and most accessible mixtape, hung together with an album’s consistency, but he wouldn’t stay put, jumping between flows and moods — from gunshot beats (“Dirt Bag”) to sugary Auto-Tuned confections (“Gang”) — with bratty delight, as the metallic drum machines and clean piano lines established musical boundaries he didn’t even acknowledge. Such tension depends on a certain degree of pop formalism, which gives him structures to violate. Refreshingly, the question of whether his tomfoolery was deliberate was left unresolved.

Although one can imagine a clumsy rapper stuttering his way to accidental brilliance, lyrics like “I’m literally talkin’ in this and it’s still knockin’!” and “I was off beat so I changed my delivery” (rapped off beat) suggest he knew exactly what he was doing. But apparently that wasn’t clear enough for Blueface, as Find the Beat strains to convince you that he’s in control. Lunging for the most obvious jokes, he’s desperate to be heard and understood, and in the rush to establish self-awareness, the album loses the craft of slapstick. If anything, it’s too coherent — too single-minded in pursuit of the cheap gag.

Blueface’s style has already caught on, as rappers like Teejayx6 and BabyTron have devised their own chaotic, babbling rhythms. Perhaps, now that Blueface has proven his intentionality, he will return to the ludic playground. If his previous work was impossible to categorize, this collection of novelty songs is just that. A rapper wearing bits and pieces of a clown outfit is weirder than a mere clown.

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