Blueface takes a selfie while performing at the Gothic Theater in Colorado. The 22-year-old rapper was nearly unknown a year ago.CreditCreditBenjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For Blueface, everything is still new, and a little surprising. A couple of weeks ago, he was paid $ 20,000 to perform two songs at the opening of a boutique. When he asks women in the crowd at concerts to lift up their shirts, they oblige. Recently, seated in first class on a flight, he ran his phone camera over the sea of other people in cushioned seats, smiled and implored his viewers to “say hello to all my Caucasian friends.”
When the 22-year-old rapper born Johnathan Porter posts these happenings on his Instagram story, he often gives the camera a little flat-affect eyebrow-raise, a Jim Halpert out in the hip-hop wilds.
The unlikely and wild moments are arriving ever more quickly these days, now that Blueface has catapulted from local Los Angeles rap notoriety to national ubiquity thanks to his single “Thotiana,” which recently reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. The slow-tempo bacchanal full of nearly whispered boasts was originally released last summer, but has recently exploded: first as a viral sensation with accompanying dances, and lately via a couple of remixes — one, with YG, to bolster its street authority, and a second, with Cardi B, to ease its path into pop ubiquity.
By December, when Blueface signed a distribution deal for his first mixtape, “Famous Cryp,” with Entertainment One Records, it was already notching between 5 and 7 million streams a week, according to Nielsen Music. Alan Grunblatt, the label’s president of urban music, said “Thotiana” was poised to be the most successful song he’s worked on since Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s No. 1, double-platinum “Crossroads.”
“Getting to this point probably took about 25 percent music,” Blueface said, verging on unimpressed, at his Denver hotel on a quiet afternoon in between shows in Colorado Springs and Englewood late last month. The rest, he noted laconically: “Marketing, promotion, being yourself.”
Unlike most rappers, he openly describes Blueface as a character. “Blueface is probably 10 times Johnathan,” he said. “Every rapper, I don’t give a [expletive] what they tell you, they got two different personalities — they not like that when they at home.” In a genre that’s long been burdened with the expectations of authenticity bumping up against the dictates of entertainment, such candor is refreshing, and utterly reasonable.
As rising-star origin stories go, this is rather unromantic, but telling of the times. Blueface is, perhaps above all, a first-rate character actor of the meme era, right down to the tattoo of Benjamin Franklin that creeps from his right ear all the way to the middle of his cheek. If you watch closely, you can see Blueface leaning into the theater of it all. He’s honed a few signature moves that he breaks out at every show: moistening the tips of his pointer finger and pinkie in his mouth, then smoothing out his eyebrows; grabbing a mop and putting it to work during “Bleed It”; pouring water over himself somewhere in between “Freak Bitch” and “Thotiana.” And then there’s the dance — the comically sexual bust down, in which he yanks at the waistband of his pants while studiously gyrating. Always, the look on his face is part rough-edged heartthrob, part can-you-believe-this?
What makes Blueface’s ascendance even more intriguing is that his flow is deeply unorthodox. On the skeletal but urgent “Famous Cryp,” his arrangement of words often bears only a passing relationship to the beats he’s rapping over. His syllables can be arrhythmic, and the conclusions of his lines fall over the end, like Wile E. Coyote zooming past the edge of a cliff, legs still pumping. At times, he suggests the embryonic Los Angeles gangster rap of the late 1980s, or even vocal eccentrics like E-40 and Suga Free. But his approach feels novel and raw, not hyperstylized. Debates about rap’s generational crisis — agonizing over younger rappers less concerned with the work of rhyme than their elders — have by now become frequent and tiresome, but Blueface’s music has spawned the unusual circumstance of people actually debating about art, rather than presentation. (“In Defense of Blueface” read one Pitchfork headline.)
A YEAR AGO, Blueface had just a few songs up on SoundCloud; now, he’s at the dawn of his mainstream ascendance, meaning that to some, he’s a cause for excitement, and to others, a cause for concern. In Colorado Springs, during a jovial set for a couple hundred enthusiasts, he did the mop thing, the eyebrow thing, the bust down. Some women lifted up their tops, and he filmed them. At the end of the night, he noticed two small children by the foot of the stage, and brought them up. How old were they? Nine and 11, they replied. A mischievous look came over his face and he asked if they’d ever seen a woman’s breast before. They didn’t quite know what to make of the question, and fortunately, no one gave them a quick lesson.
The next night, Blueface and his entourage pulled up to the back door of the Gothic Theater in Englewood and were greeted by an agitated security guard, a couple of concerned-looking venue representatives and a baby-faced local police officer. The security guard said he’d received reports of trouble in Colorado Springs, something about underage women exposing their breasts onstage (which had not happened). Blueface was mostly quiet while his bombastic manager, Wack 100, protested, “Was you there to see that?”
The game of chicken outside the venue lasted around five minutes; each side threatened to derail the night’s show before eventually relenting. Blueface remained quiet and nonconfrontational, more accommodationist than rabble-rouser. The show went off without a hitch.
Blueface has a sleepy, easy charm, and moves with the carriage of the athletic star he was just a few years ago. If it was the early 1990s, he’d already have been cast in a Hughes Brothers or John Singleton film. (For now, how about a three-episode arc on “Ballers”?)
When he was a child, his mother, who’d moved to Los Angeles from Ohio to pursue acting, took him around for commercial auditions. “It was fun when I got picked and I was in the commercial and it was like, ‘oh, look at the commercial!’” he said. “But I didn’t enjoy it as a kid.”
He stopped auditioning once he began taking football more seriously. He attended several high schools, constantly changing in pursuit of a better sports program. William Coan coached Blueface during his 2014 senior year at Arleta High School, during which the team went 8-4, averaging 40 points a game. Blueface was the starting quarterback, and talented — “Not only could he throw the ball, he could run the ball as well,” Coan said — and also easy to coach: After the team worked out in the weight room, Blueface would blast the gratingly saccharine “Clean Up,” from the Barney children’s series, from his phone.
Getting groomed for the spotlight on the field has been a help in music. “You the center of attention,” Blueface said. “Keep your poise, pressure make diamonds.”
Blueface moved to North Carolina to give college football a try, and his mother left California as well. When he returned after a short stint that went nowhere, her absence ended up being a boon. “I think if she was in Cali when I was doing my thing, it wouldn’t have worked,” he said. “I would have been in her nest, and she wouldn’t have necessarily agreed with half the [expletive] I was doing. It made Blueface be able to be Blueface 100 percent.”
Blueface was his street name — he is a member of the School Yard Crips gang, which dominated the neighborhood he grew up in before it was his rap name. When he returned from college, he became a stay-at-home dad, caring for his son, Jevaughn, while Jevaughn’s mother, Jaidyn, would go off to work. He thought he might become a barber, and ran an Instagram account called the Fade Room, showing off haircuts and fights. But after a chance outing to a studio, he decided to pursue rapping, making a list of steps for music-business success, only some of which had to do with music.
“I didn’t know what kind of sound I wanted to make. I didn’t have no influences,” he said. “I just heard my voice in the microphone and was like, damn, I like that.” He posted a handful of songs to SoundCloud, each with a different style. The one that stuck was “Deadlocs,” a casual, boastful talker with a spooky beat from an old friend, Scum Beatz. He set goals for daily play counts, and for when he would shoot a video. Then he started creating viral moments — taking informal polls on Instagram about which high school’s students were following him the most, then driving to that school and performing an impromptu concert atop his car. Rather than goof off to gain followers, he wanted to be sure his face was connected to his song: “Putting it from your ears to your eyes.”
IN TODAY’S HIP-HOP ecosystem, distribution and starmaking systems are well-oiled; the fans are there before the artist ever shows up. Memes get disseminated quickly (and mostly discarded quickly too). Snippets of songs are used as soundtracks for selfie or dance videos. The music — the musician — is often merely an accent.
That makes social media a necessary evil and a savage tease for upstart musicians of this generation: You have to cultivate a viral-friendly image, but not let it swallow your art. “People be famous for everything other than music and that’s what they really trying to do,” Blueface said. “But they don’t know once you get famous for being this funny guy, nobody’s going to take you serious as a musician.”
Still, if it’s virality the kids want, then virality Blueface will give them. Last year, when he wasn’t yet able to Crip walk (a footwork-heavy dance pioneered by Crips), he was mocked online. So he taught himself, filming his progress. However he doesn’t always identify when the winds aren’t going his way, like when he faced backlash for recently referring to a transgender woman as “it.” He shrugged off questions about the matter.
As for his living-meme Ben Franklin tattoo, he insists he was sober when he got it, not long after he’d decided to become a rapper, but long before fans had really taken to him. “The people that went with me was like, ‘Nah, don’t do that. Do not do that.’” Blueface said. But he was determined: “This is going to be the never-forget-it,” he told them. No turning back.
Eventually, Blueface collected several songs he’d posted on his SoundCloud on “Famous Cryp,” which he initially released independently and has gone as high as No. 29 on the Billboard album chart. He is also signed to Cash Money West, and his new music, including the singles “Bleed It” and “Studio,” will be released via Republic, a division of the Universal Music conglomerate. “I’ve got two labels going full throttle with two singles,” Wack 100 said. Add to that guest appearances on songs by G-Eazy, Tyga and others, creating, he said, “so much traffic.”
The suffusion is likely to continue through the spring; Blueface has recorded songs with Drake, the Game, French Montana, Lil Pump, E-40 and others.
“‘Thotiana’ has become, like, a worldly song. It’s like ‘Teach Me How to Dougie,’ ‘Chicken Noodle Soup,’” Wack 100 said, referring to transcendent hip-hop one-hit wonders of a decade ago. “What happens is those songs will get so big and the artist will get caught up in the moment of making all the money off that song that then when it drowns out, you come with a song after the fact and because it’s not as big as that, people won’t deal with you. So I’m forced to feed them something different.”
In recent months, as Blueface’s career has been thriving, there have been legal setbacks. He was arrested in February on charges of gun possession and last November on charges of assault with a deadly weapon (after he was reportedly the victim of a robbery). Blueface has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
In the meanwhile, Johnathan is trying to squeeze all the rewards out of being Blueface. He bought a house in a gated community. When he last saw his mother, he gave her $ 10,000 in cash. Jaidyn joined him in Colorado — the two have been on and off since high school, and slowly, he’s trying to induct her into his new life. “To understand that you are literally two different people inside of one body, she’s just starting to get it,” he said. “You with Johnathan — you don’t want to be with Blueface.”
This month, he’ll be on tour opening for Lil Baby. And this summer, he hopes to release a proper full-length album. But you can almost sense the creeping fatigue. Being Blueface is, right now, almost constant work.
“I just want to get paid to lay down, wake up when I want to wake up, go to sleep when I want to go to sleep, and my money just be there,” he said, unapologetically. “I just want to make the most doing the least.”