I loved both "Hit 'Em Up Style" and its superior re-run "Swingin" (their use of ragtime samples was a massive rip-offs of Lina, mind, but if you're gonna bite someone's style then you should at least do it as consummately as Blu did) but in truth I think Blu Cantrell's finest moment was the remix of Usher's "U Remind Me", where her multitracked vocals added some gorgeous mystery to Usher's winsome but straightforward performance. "I can recall a certain magic in your eye," she sings, ever so delicately, "although we are just meeting, I feel as though I already know you..." Blu's counterpoint to Usher is more affecting for me because it's less bogged down in self-explanation; Blu captures the irony of being attracted and repelled by the resemblence to a former lover every time you meet someone new, without sounding like she's issuing a lecture on the topic (Usher's "sit down 'cos this may take a while" - endearing or yawn-inducing? You decide).
I sort of expected Blu to remain between these two poles of imperious jazzy sophistication ("Hit 'Em Up Style) and enigmatic fragility ("U Remind Me"), while continuing to flirt with the MOR big-balladry that made her first album less than appealing. What's interesting then is how persistent she seems to be in establishing an alternate identity, making use of her self-consciously big, soulful voice in totally unexpected contexts. The first hint was on the remix for "Hit 'Em Up Style", which curiously chose Foxy Brown to be its requisite guest rapper, which seemed to make even less sense than when Toni Braxton used her on the "You're Makin' Me High" remix. The reality was actually a bit stranger than the original: ransacking everything except the chorus, the the new version of "Hit 'Em Up Style" was a thumping, shimmering bass-driven number that could be Rockwilder on a Jamaican tip, while Foxy Brown delivered one of her mixed straight-talking/patois raps that actually work better for their unwillingness to stick to either script.
Why has Blu chosen dancehall as her second home? I think perhaps it's just a simple case of needing a gimmick; there's too many big soulful voices out there to rely on only quality and volume, and Truth Hurts proved with "Addictive" that even quality and volume need not be perfect if the distraction is good enough (which is not to say that Truth's vocals were bad, but I imagine Blu could lick her confidently). And, since Blu coming out with an "Addictive" of her own would seem desperate, it's fitting that she's chosen to run with Jamaica for all it's worth.
And it's an excellent move. On Lady May's "Round Up" (sounding like a cowboy themed take on Eve's "Gotta Man" with a pulsing bassline borrowed from Foxy Brown's "Oh Yeah" or Noreaga's "Nothin") Blu contributes a gorgeous chorus halfway between her usual soulful holler and sharp, brisk Jamaican commands, momentarily slipping into rapid-fire patois that's so subtle and short-lived I always think I'm hallucinating it. It's not quite as good as Missy's Jamaican caterwaul on Trina's "Rewind That Back", but it's still ear-tingling.
Even better is her own "Breathe", where she delegates the patois duties to a thick-tongued Lady Saw-esque femme DJ so she can do some of her own big-chested soul action. Statelier than "Hit 'Em Up Style", "Breathe" has a slower and heavier swing, stepping on a wonderfully pompous tuba'n'strings riff that's less obvious but even more aristocratic than the former hit's ragtime samples. Blu is more graceful to, measuring each grandiloquent declamation with consummate dignity: "All we do is MAKE UP, then BREAK UP, why don't we WAKE UP and SEE!?!?" Her central command ("BREATHE!") is interspersed with tense, urgent inhalations and exhalations, which almost ruins the entire thing (compromising Blu's queenly presence) but luckily pull themselves back from overt prominence.
Unfortunately, the patois-action is sadly limited to a short intro and bridge, but importantly it would seem that bar evidence to the contrary this is actually Blu herself biting Lady Saw's style. Still, it's a relief to find that on the musically indistinguishable remix Blu commandeers Sean Paul into giving some fantastic verses, attempting to put out Blu's fire with some straight-talking machismo ("Feminists put out the good times lately" he complains mournfully), sounding fantastically out of place over the top of Blu's musical finery. Suffice to say, the back-and-forth between Blu's collected reserve and Sean's blunt peevishness makes for one of the better back'n'forths I've heard in a while. Bring on the album then, and let's hope Blu's actually and fully learnt from her mistakes.