Los Angeles rapper Blueface. (Ramon Piquero/R54 Photography)
Pop music critic

Before we try to leap outside of temporality itself, let’s hear a round of applause for Blueface, the most inventive voice on the Billboard Hot 100 right now — inventive enough to make the concept of “right now” feel slippery.

He’s a rapper from the dystopian paradise of Los Angeles who vocalizes as if he’s allergic to time, frequently rushing out in front of the beat with such audacity, his music has ignited a months-long argument inside the digital rap bubble over whether we’re hearing new-school virtuosity or old-fashioned ineptitude. It’s obviously the former, or at least something like it. But until all of that noise dies down, the best thing we could possibly hope to hear in this 22-year-old’s blessed anti-flow is opportunity — an opportunity to think about how we use rhythm to measure time, and what it means when a rapper refuses.

Theorizers have theorized that instead of responding to the beat, Blueface is actually rapping to some fugitive tempo inside his head. Even so, he takes a persistent approach to his most exhilarating lines, starting and ending pretty much where we expect him to, but accelerating through the internal syllables like he’s revving an alien dirt bike. Here’s another vehicular visualization: Imagine a train wreck. The locomotive plows into an immovable object, and while the engine and the caboose stay pinned to the ground, every boxcar in between goes flying off the tracks. That’s how Blueface raps. Sometimes. And instead of a big disaster, it sounds like a tiny miracle.

That doesn’t make it holy. When Blueface blurts out his most jumbled threats and hectic sex-brags, it’s as if he’s peeking into the future and smirking back at us. It’s rule-breaking music — a tacit reminder that America’s dominant rebel art form is also a rebellion against time.

All music plays with the clock, and when it gets fun, it imbues rhythm with meaning. When we say that a beat “swings,” we’re hearing a series of surges and hesitations that suddenly make existence feel less rigid. Swing forces time to loosen its grip, and that freedom feels good. Or when we talk about “polyrhythm,” we’re essentially talking about two different tempos running in simpatico parallel — and when those paired grooves nestle against one another, it sparks all kinds of metaphors about empathy and cooperation. To understand polyrhythm — or even just to dance to it — is to understand that there’s more than one path forward through our shared experience of time.

Most rappers incorporate swing and polyrhythm when they arrange their rhymes over a beat, but because rap is such an intimate and intense mode of autobiographical mouth-music, a rapper’s time-play can feel more heroic than that of others. Rappers are sonic protagonists who turn words into sounds, and whenever they break our collective contract with time, they’re literally telling us how to get outside of life.

So why do people feel so chafed when they hear Blueface rapping “offbeat?” Because they’ve been conditioned by decades of vacuum-sealed rap verses. The importance of rapping tightly to a rhythm was practically written into rap music’s Magna Carta — “Now what you hear is not a test, I’m rapping to the beat” — and at the dawn of hip-hop, such measures probably felt necessary. These were marginalized voices who wanted the rest of the world to hear them. Rapping close to the beat was a way of aligning your human voice with the unstoppable clarity and authority of time.

Expectations changed in the ’90s as new faces from the West Coast and the South began rapping slightly behind the beat with cool consistency. The effect remains mesmerizing — a defiant expression of comfort and a comfortable expression of defiance all at once. Plus, rapping behind the beat doesn’t freak us out with its riskiness because we’re entirely familiar with the near past. The memory is fresh, we were just there. Our heroes have figured out how to stay there a little longer.

Maybe that’s why rapping ahead of the beat makes so many of us feel so anxious. It’s not just that it’s atypical; it’s that nobody has been to the future. So whenever Blueface gets ahead of himself, it puts our ears on edge. He’s pushing us into a place we can’t go.

And when he isn’t crashing into the future, he’s taffy-stretching the present. Blueface recently explained his approach to Billboard magazine like so: “Maybe I’m fitting too many words in, but if I didn’t fit those words in, you wouldn’t get [the effect] as much.”

He goes on to describe his affection for overcrowding the center of his lines with bonus details, citing a lyric from “Respect My Cryppin’,” perhaps his most mischievous song: “Mop the floor, hide the wet sign, just to catch him slipping.” Yeah, he could have left it at, “Mop the floor just to catch him slipping.” But there was more to say, and he was willing to warp time to say it.

Which is astonishing, right? When Blueface speeds up, everything else around him starts to get slow, which gives him a little more time to talk a little more trash. He isn’t speeding up his words. He’s slowing down the world.


Blueface at the 2019 BET Social Awards. (Marcus Ingram/Getty Images For BET)

If all of this clock talk makes you feel like I’m overestimating Blueface as a rapper, I’d encourage you not to underestimate yourself as a listener. His sound is what got him here, and instead of flying off into the imaginative possibilities of what his sound might mean, the pixelated blab has focused on whether his verbal arrhythmia is intentional, or who he might have inherited it from, or if it might actually be incidental to his expedited journey into a new tax bracket.

As far as intentionality goes, it should be obvious that he’s rapping with artful, joyful purpose. And if it isn’t, Blueface has every reason to feel flattered that his feigned carelessness sounds so convincing, that dizzy ears keep mistaking it for actual amateurism — that instead of hearing miraculous train wrecks, some people are still hearing a wobbly kid learning to ride his bike. Their loss, though. And if they don’t want to listen harder, they should at least look both ways before crossing the tracks.

Others have been eager to put Blueface’s time traveling in context. Many say he most resembles Suga Free and E-40, two California syllable jammers of the highest order. Those more attuned to Blueface’s erratic vocal timbres — which can make him sound like he’s experiencing an overconfident puberty — hear distant echoes of Mystikal. On top of that, Blueface has plenty of peers working ahead of the beat, coast to coast — from Drakeo the Ruler, a fellow Angeleno who mutters with unfathomable precision, to Goonew, a rapper from Maryland whose hurried whispers can chill your blood like an atemporal death breeze. But ultimately, these rappers only sound like themselves.

Meantime, somehow, the impact of Blueface’s rogue sound is being overwritten with the most boring industry narrative imaginable, and Blueface isn’t helping.

“Getting to this point probably took about 25 percent music,” Blueface recently told the New York Times in a profile where the critic Jon Caramanica described his subject as “a first-rate character actor of the meme era,” largely crediting the rapper’s success to his Instagram savvy; to the viral dances associated with Blueface’s street-hit-turned-national-hit, “Thotiana”; and to the large tattoo of Benjamin Franklin decorating Blueface’s right temple. “In today’s hip-hop ecosystem, distribution and starmaking systems are well-oiled,” Caramanica writes. “. . . The music — the musician — is often merely an accent.”

The first part is totally right, but the second part is totally depressing and, in this case, totally wrong. (Blueface is only about 75 percent wrong.) No rapper has ever climbed so high on the charts sounding quite like this. His sound isn’t an accent. It’s the source. Everything else follows.

It’s easy to confuse what makes an artist famous and what makes art important. Sometimes, the only way to understand a song’s magnetism is by parsing all the stuff that the song has magnetized — but these songs are doing new things, making time feel blurry in new ways, and they deserve more. To dismiss Blueface as an amateur, or to downplay him as a stylistic facsimile, or to think of him as a spritz of social media ambiance is to deny his music the breadth of its mystery.