Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Blu & Exile - Below The Heavens Review (2007)

A well-documented alternate reality of Hip-Hop is that of Blu and his career path. One of the most lyrically-proficient prodigy's emerging out of the rubble of the 1990's Boom Bap era, Blu cemented himself in Hip-Hop's crucial mid-2000's underground by releasing, in collaboration with Exile, Below The Heavens. You see, in 2007, when his debut LP released, Hip-Hop was gasping for air, exhausting its last breaths. Not just the mainstream, which was kept alive almost solely by Kanye West who would later resurrect it in 2010, but the underground as well, left vacant by the sub-genre's linchpin; MF DOOM. Then, the 24 year-old, drawing direct comparisons to Nas, released Below The Heavens, amidst turmoil after turning down both Interscope and Death Row Records, and Hip-Hop's underground found hope once again. A perfect summation of modern day Boom Bap was created, using samples not just from the Soul Era, but Hip-Hop's own Golden Era, under imagery of lost adolescence driven by an ambitious emcee. Then, just like that, the light faded. Blu struggled to create a successor, working with a plethora of artists on non-official follow-ups, mixtapes, and EP's. While the underground stormed through the floodgates, enjoying a monumental revival, Blu sat quietly, churning out releases off sheer talent. His light may be dimmer, but Below The Heavens assures that he'll never be forgotten.

Call it the Exile curse, this isn't the only time the LA producer teamed up for a prophetic debut that led to empty promises. Two years after Below The Heavens, Exile did it again, this time with Fashawn, another Golden State come-up who stepped into Blu's shoes with the utmost confidence. Think of Boy Meets World as the official follow-up to Blu's debut endeavor. In fact, I'd argue they're inseparable, not just for their similar musical styles and influences, but the quiet history that ensued. The bread and butter that holds the two together is, of course, the man behind the boards. Littered with scrumptious Boom Bap that reincarnated the likes of Pete Rock, Prince Paul, and Large Professor, taking not just from the dusty records of yore but Exile's own interests as a kid growing up listening to such legends, Below The Heavens' production owes a great deal to the past. And why shouldn't it? The bulk of Blu's lyrical content resides in the murky waters of his tumultuous childhood. Just like Illmatic, Blu reflects on his salad days, only difference being, in 2007 the production emanated the nostalgia, whereas Illmatic, Nas, and his team created it.

Some tracks hit that influence more succinctly than others, like 'In Remembrance Of Me' or 'So(ul) Amazin' (Steel Blazin'),' which both come equip with a treasure trove of Golden Era samples, from Nas to Pete Rock to Common to Jeru The Damaja. In this respect, Below The Heavens excels by not just being Blu's autobiographical opus, but Exile's ode to his ancestors. It may have come a decade too late, but Below The Heavens certainly deserves to be lumped into Boom Bap's greatest records, if only for the beats alone. Obviously Blu more than holds his own, stealing the show more often than not, but Exile's foundation is so secure, intact, and prepossessing that it's hard not to admire the beats as well. Just look to the twins, 'My World Is...' and 'The World Is (Below The Heavens...),' the latter acting as the unofficial close to Blu's tale, to see Exile's masterwork at hand. Meaty drums compete with the graceful chirping of 60's and 70's Soul musicians, two contradictory elements that borrow the light and dark from each other respectively. Below The Heavens is filled with this simple, yet effective approach.

However, following 'The World Is' and its credit-rolling outro 'You Are Now In The Clouds With' that sees Blu listing off his thank you's over some Miguel harmonizing, Exile lightens the mood even more so, delving in some quirky, cartoon-consumed, post-struggle ambiance. The seven-minute 'I Am...' bounces over some light pianos as Blu expands on his namesake, using a Sesame Street sample as the basis, while the hidden track '[untitled]' chops up Shelley Duvall's 'He Needs Me' off the 1980 Popeye soundtrack. Both of these sound as if a toddler with Fisher Price instruments created Boom Bap, and believe me, that's a compliment considering they're two of the best songs on here, rounding out Blu's trip down memory lane beautifully. Below The Heavens, for me, works best when it's tip-toeing this line between innocent and mature. They work interchangeably, because just as often as Blu's reflecting on the past he's anticipating the future, seen on tracks like 'The Narrow Path' or 'Show Me The Good Life.' These works show Exile's production which, at times, seems childish and naive, all while Blu's lyrics elaborate on dark themes that he endured during times when Sesame Street should've been on.

This is best seen on Below The Heavens' climatic standout, 'Cold Hearted.' With a gentle, expertly arranged sample of Detroit Emeralds 'I'll Never Sail The Sea Again' silently looping as if it's stuck on the TV channel, Blu's tale of domestic abuse and fantastical revenge is astonishingly bleak. If it were on a Gangsta Rap record it would still standout for being too grim. Here though, surrounded by the calming, pleasant sounds of 70's R&B, Blu unravels a grotesque narrative of his mother consistently encountering men who use and abuse her, hoping, imagining, and maybe one day, executing, an attack with a gun that he got from his "pops top drawer when he left my momma twice in a week." The imagery throughout is painful, easily making it one of Hip-Hop's strongest artistic statements. 'Cold Hearted' works as the summation of Below The Heavens' strongest assets, namely Blu's lyrical dexterity and emotional past and Exile's knack for exasperating both of them with sentimental charm. We're almost a decade removed from Blu's debut, and while he's still dropping music at an astounding rate, the legacy he leaves behind centers solely around grand, debut opus. Rife with complex storytelling, cultural beat-making, and two pros at the top of their game, Below The Heavens intends to live and breath Hip-Hop at its heart.

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