Late last month, on an overcast afternoon in Hollywood, L.A. rapper Blueface arrived at an album release party at the Roosevelt Hotel. It wasn't for his own record, but it might as well have been.
As dozens of fans, industry movers and deep entourages mingled while the Game's new LP bumped from the speakers, handlers whisked 22-year-old Blueface (born Johnathan Porter) to a private cabana in the back of the pool. Staff brought over magnums of Veuve Clicquot Champagne while onlookers snapped clandestine pictures from beyond the velvet rope line.
Blueface is easy to recognize, even in that crowd. Six-foot-four and ropy, he still passes for the high-school quarterback he used to be. It's impossible to miss the giant, eerie portrait of Benjamin Franklin's image from the $100 bill tattooed just beside his right eye socket (he inked it as a way to purposefully self-sabotage any career but hip-hop). The bet paid off: At the Roosevelt pool, several acquaintances popped over to congratulate him on being named to the cover of XXL magazine's 2019 Freshman Class days earlier (Blueface will play the magazine's Freshman showcase, with YBN Cordae, Megan Thee Stallion and others, at the Novo on Thursday).
They wouldn't have much time though. In around an hour, he'd have to get downtown to Staples Center to perform at the BET Awards.
A hit single, industry acclaim, arena gigs and co-signs from Drake, Kendrick Lamar, YG and Cardi B — everything seems locked and loaded for the rapper. But the hip-hop scene he comes from churns more quickly than ever, and attention is fleeting. With a forthcoming mixtape and debut LP for Republic, can Blueface start a new chapter in West Coast rap?
"Everybody's waiting on the downfall of artists," he said. "I've got everybody waiting on me right now. But I ain't going nowhere."
More than any other genre today, hip-hop is driven by virality. Songs start life as memes on TikTok; fans do their video-clip riffing and spread it wide, and in a matter of weeks or even days a track cribbed off a YouTube beat page can become the biggest single on Earth.
That happened for Blueface, but it wasn't the whole reason he got here. Even if you're not constantly hunting in the weeds of TikTok, you've probably heard "Thotiana." The song is a classic example of minor-key-yet-upbeat L.A. party rap, with Blueface's trebly, languid voice taking a liberal way around the Scum Beatz-produced instrumental. It's chock-full of fun ad-libs and came with its own dance craze, which was more than enough to send it to the charts. "Thotiana" hit the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in March and counts a quarter-billion Spotify plays between the two official versions (one is a remix with YG and Cardi B).
"There's a twinkle in his eye as he takes that mop out onstage to do his dance, looking at fans like, 'Can you believe this [stuff]?'" said Chris Taylor, the global president of music for Entertainment One, the label and management firm that first launched Blueface. "The kids who went to see him play at their high school or at the mall, they're rooting for him now."
After graduating as a star quarterback from Arleta High School in the San Fernando Valley, he raised his son while he tried to figure out next steps in music. "Babies can't do nothing, so I had a lot of time to create Blueface," he joked. Impromptu shows at L.A. high schools and a savvy social media presence helped get him on L.A.'s rap radar (he has 4.5 million followers on Instagram, and he recently posted video of two girlfriends getting Franklin tattoos to match his own).
Going from life as a dad holding part-time jobs to chart-topping rapper was a remarkable turnaround. But plenty of rappers can go from zero to 100 on the strength of one undeniable single. "Thotiana" had legs on radio, but Taylor admitted that there was also "an element of novelty" to that track's success. How does a young musician move past it?
So far, Blueface has taken a slower, IV-drip kind of approach to keeping in circulation. He's proved formidable as a collaborator, cutting singles with G Eazy and Rich the Kid with his Cheshire Cat sense of humor intact (he released "Daddy," decidedly not an ode to filial affection, just in time for Father's Day this year). After a year of memes about how he can't rap on beat — a stylistic choice he's well aware of and has joked about on social media — he's even gotten notably better at staying in the pocket.
"At first, it was a little rookie-ish, and I'm going to be more polished up for the next one," Blueface said. Even surrounded by classic hip-hop accoutrements — a bottle of Hennessy, shimmering platinum chains of his record label logo and his own tattoo — he was arch and self-aware about his place within West Coast rap's tradition. "The old West Coast rappers are the way I rap; they weren't always on beat but it was about telling a story. I'm just a little more modern so it doesn't sound exactly the same. Everything ain't just about the radio. I don't wanna go full mainstream and have my followers go 'What happened?'"
To that end, Blueface has already shaken his team up a bit. Through his manager Wack 100, he's signed to a newly minted West Coast division of Cash Money Records, the New Orleans label that made global superstars of Drake, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj (his LP will be released through Republic). When discussing potential future collaborators for Blueface, Wack tossed around names like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone and even the Jonas Brothers.
The XXL Freshman cover and a headline show at the Hollywood Palladium in October will keep him in the hip-hop conversation for now, but his new music will determine if he's here to last as an artist and not just as a charismatic MC with an uncanny eye for Instagram. He doesn't seem too worried about his arrests on a pair of gun charges last year, including one incident in which he claimed self defense during an attempted robbery. "I'm not nervous at all, I know what I did and didn't do, and not one bone in my body is worried," he said. A jury trial, on the charge of assault with a deadly weapon, is set for August. While maintaining his innocence, he allows that the recent murder of fellow L.A. rapper Nipsey Hussle was a wake-up call to steer clear of similar situations. "I listened to his music and yeah, you're affected by it. It could have been me. I've got to be more cautious."
It's far from a sure bet that he'll emerge as a generational West Coast rapper. But as his handlers ushered him out of the Roosevelt party to make his Staples Center stage debut, he had as good a chance as anyone.
"Right when I started trying to be a rapper, I knew everybody was gonna be 'Come on, it's a one in a million chance,'" he said. "I had to be the strongest person for myself. Nobody wanted to follow me. Everyone that made fun of it just made me go harder."
For breaking music news, follow @augustbrown on Twitter.