When I meet Blueface, he tells me he’s in escrow, which seems appropriate. He’s sprawled out in an rolling chair in the empty conference room at Billboard’s Los Angeles offices, and we’re going over the details of how, in the matter of a couple of months -- it feels much shorter -- the 22-year-old has gone from being a latecoming member to a crescendoing local scene, to a citywide sensation, to a national star-in-waiting.
There are no new hits, at least not yet; “Thotiana,” the now-massive one that was an Angeleno sensation last year, keeps dividing and mutating like a cell under a microscope. It splits and multiplies and absorbs Cardi B, while Blueface’s fame grows exponentially. And still, this seems like the precipice, the calm before truly, garishly making it. You expect him to pop up on Ellen any day now, the host trying and failing to bust it down appropriately.
Blueface, who is never not smiling, looks like a rapper your mom might love: Tall, charming, wearing multiple watches. Born Jonathan Porter at the beginning of 1997, he grew up in Mid-City L.A., near the intersection of Carmona and Washington, until his parents moved: his mother to the Valley, his father to Oakland. He estimates he went to five different high schools. His immediate family today reflects that sprawl, with his mom and dad in Ohio and Anaheim, respectively, while his sister is in Georgia and his older brother is “still in jail -- for a long time.”
The School Yard Crips are a fixture of the neighborhood where Blueface grew up; he notes that this and other socioeconomic factors mean kids, especially young boys, have to make major decisions about their lives by the time they’re 14 or 15 years old. “That’s when you usually decide if you wanna go down that route or try something else,” he says. “At that time” -- 15 -- “I was trying something else.”
That something else was football. A quarterback, Blueface compares his game to Cam Newton’s, and the highlight reels make that seem less ridiculous than you might otherwise think: relaxed posture in the pocket, eager to run but with a big arm. In his senior year at Arleta High School, he threw for 1,724 yards and 21 touchdowns, leading the Mustangs to the East Valley League title. (His coach at Arleta told the Los Angeles Times that Blueface was “very coachable.”) That earned him a scholarship to NCAA Division II Fayetteville State, in North Carolina, where he planned to redshirt but was forced to forego a year of eligibility when he was briefly inserted after an injury to the starting quarterback. The experience soured him on Fayetteville and he left, moving back to L.A. Then, the regret set in, followed by half-hearted attempts to forge a path back to college ball.
Blueface speaks about the end of his career the way former top-flight athletes often do, a little wistful, obviously pained. “In the beginning, I was trying to make my way back,” he says. “I was trying to go back to Fayetteville. But once that got blurrier and blurrier, I just…” ...and he trails off. It’s easy to imagine that if rap had never happened, Porter might still be mulling the glory days, Archie Bunker with a giant Ben Franklin portrait tattooed on his face.
Of course, it didn’t come to that. After finally relegating the cleats to the back of a closet somewhere, a series of odd jobs and semi-legal tangents led him to the social circle of TeeCee4800, a celebrated L.A. rapper (and a School Yard member himself). This was not an aspiring artist trying to get on by association -- Blueface was just hanging out, going to shows, bullshitting. One day TeeCee called Blueface to bring an iPhone accessory to the studio; when Blueface walked in and saw a small cadre of rappers writing to a beat, he did the same, then stepped into the booth and laid a verse, heard his voice on the playback and fell in love. From that moment, he says, he invested all his time, money and energy in rap.
Success came nearly as quick as that fixation. Last spring, he was getting mobbed in high school parking lots, watching his songs trickle onto peoples’ radars: by SoundCloud, by WorldStar, by radio mix shows. By the end of the year, Drake came pestering in the DMs. There is an element of this rapid rise to fame that feels distinctly, almost embarrassingly current: Blueface has spread through memes and jokes and reaction videos in a way that could make it seem that he’s accumulating raw view counts as opposed to -- or even at the expense of -- gaining fans. Clicks are agnostic, after all. But there are wrinkles in this cynical view of his new fame. The first is that the music, chiefly last year’s lean, intoxicating mixtape Famous Cryp, is very good. The second is that more than any popular rapper since Young Thug, Blueface’s breakthrough has led to heated, delightfully in-the-weeds arguments about style and aesthetics, the kind that have raged since the internet was a gleam in Al Gore’s eye.
Blueface raps like he’s talking to you. “The way I rap is very west coast,” he says. “If you think about west coast rappers from back in the day, they were more or less talking: I did this, did that, whoo wham, came here, did that, shot him, left here.” He’s right, but he’s describing the subject matter of, say, Ice Cube’s verses, which bent toward more conventional rhythms; Blueface’s own music has the same pacing, asides and dead-ends as his speech does. On “Deadlocs,” one of the first songs to break him locally, he sounds like he’s always just about to start rapping in earnest, but never quite does.
Much of Famous Cryp plays out this way: “Thotiana,” which currently sits at No. 13 on the Hot 100, is mostly hook and a string of afterthoughts. What ties the tape together is that Blueface is frequently funny in ways that are knowing, crass and absurd. He inhabits a world where he’s inundated with unsolicited nudes from kind strangers, where he turns concerts into Chippendales and where he’s “finna sing with The Temptations.” The fact that this is all delivered in what seems like an offhand manner allows the jokes to breathe, and to land with the proper timing.
The digital shouting matches about Blueface stem from the accusation that he raps “offbeat,” which itself rests on the assumption that there is a very limited scope of ways in which one might rap on-beat. Blueface’s verses usually start and end at that place very near regular speech, and seem to be directed by other instruments (piano keys, especially) more often than they are by the drums, which guide most rappers' efforts. “They say it’s offbeat, or maybe I’m fitting too many words in,” he says, “but if I didn’t fit those words in, you wouldn’t get [the effect] as much.”
As an example, he points to “Respect My Cryppin’,” another of Cryp’s hits. “For instance, if I just said, ‘Mop the floor, just to catch him slipping,’ that bar wouldn’t be iconic now. It’s the ‘hide the wet sign’” -- the extra image, the syllables crammed into the bar where none would usually go -- “that just made it....” Blueface imitates a satisfied Italian chef kissing his fingers.
He explains that, unlike the countless rappers of his generation who construct their songs out of marathon freestyle sessions in the booth, every word of his songs is written down in his Notes app beforehand. “I’d rather you listen to my music with a confused face, you know?” he asks, more animated than at any other point in our conversation. “Rather than you just hearing a good flow to a good beat. I’d rather you listen to what I’m saying and understand what I’m saying and think that it’s garbage than to think that it’s good while I’m saying a bunch of bullshit.”
Blueface insists that he doesn’t draw inspiration from anyone (“It was not influenced by nobody”) but his style has both historical antecedents and close contemporaries. Suga Free, the legend from Pomona, comes up frequently, and while it’s not a direct comparison -- he’s more staccato, more melodic, etc. -- it’s true that Suga Free is at least as untethered from the drums as Blueface is. The latter also fits comfortably within the exploding L.A. scene.
Frostydasnowmann and Almighty Suspect perfected the exasperated, barking flow Blueface uses on songs like “Freak Bitch”; there are common threads between his music and that of 1TakeJay and Drakeo the Ruler. (Drakeo, in particular, makes Blueface’s case about a flow creating its own pocket within a beat; he raps in a lower register and is more monotone, which makes it very clear that flowing to something other than the drums can make perfect rhythmic sense.)
Critics have also rightly pointed out that the current street-rap scenes in cities like Chicago and Detroit are home to similarly careening flows; SOB x RBE, the excellent quartet from Vallejo, are similarly unworried about conventional meter. Simply put, while Blueface raps differently from the majority of nationally popular rappers today, his style is nowhere near as far-flung or avant-garde as his most harried detractors would have you believe. More importantly, it works: His songs work in cars and in clubs, and are dripping with personality; the flows develop an internal logic of their own.
Even if he’s not a radical outlier, no one’s national profile is exploding like Blueface’s. The “Thotiana” remix with YG was teased as the blockbuster trump card, until the one with Cardi B blew right past it. (The remixes have since been combined into one version, including all three rappers.) He jokes that he’s going to make his label -- that would be Cash Money West, embodied by the imposing Wack 100, best known as Game’s manager -- “work a little harder” before he finally drops his proper debut album, which he guesses could be out by summertime.
As of late, however, the rapper has come under scrutiny: from the cops and from fans. Last week, Blueface was charged with one count of carrying a loaded handgun without registration, a felony, stemming from a Feb. 1 arrest. (He was released on $35,000 bail and has a court date in Los Angeles this week.) Around the same time, Blueface posted a series of transphobic comments to his Instagram account, referring to a transgender woman as a “tr--ny” and with the pronoun “it.” Through a representative, Blueface has declined to comment on either matter.
But the machine moves along. He has a tour on the horizon with Lil Baby and City Girls. At a recent, sold-out show at the Novo in downtown L.A., Blueface took a couple of extended breaks while women from all corners of the venue exposed their breasts to him. (“Ooh!” he shouted each time. “I’m viral!”) It would seem par for the course for a man who calls himself “every woman’s fantasy.” I ask him if he considers himself a sex symbol.
“Oh, for sure,” he says, beaming. “For sure. I’ll do some porn if they want me to. Dead homies.”