Review Summary: Decidedly down-to-earth hip-hop by a talented new up-and-comer.
Where 2007’s other great hip-hop album, Pharoahe Monch’s Desire
, dealt on a grander scale (tackling New Orleans and conspiracy theories), Blu and Exile’s Below the Heavens
is very much its counter-balance. More homebound and ambitious with the excited newcomer naivety, Blu and Exile, making their auspicious debut (in an album too long for the casual listening) are more interested in the war behind their
walls and in their
streets. Blu might berate you (the guys figure you should have heard of the album, and if you haven’t, you’re the motherfu
cking idiot who put the motherfu
cking ‘e’ on the motherfu
cking poster), but when need be, Blu is more down-to-earth than cocky. Clocking in at 60 minutes, Below the Heavens
runs the risk of drawing itself out to a breaking point, belittling its greater moments by surrounding them in fluff. But Blu, sticking close to the unexceptional meaning of the title, is more interested in realism while Exile is more interested in fiddling with concept, keeping things simple without making it an exercise in minimalist.
Aside from the self-indulgent album opener found in the form of ‘My World Is…,’ a catchy, sample ridden, ego stroking number devoted to Blu and his abilities as a rapper (more tongue-in-cheek than self-gratifying), Blu is content in penning and discussing real world stories. In the album highlight, ‘Narrow Path,’ he details the growing difficulties to be a young underground MC in modern times, toeing the edges of the “narrow path.” Here, in the superb chorus, diluted almost to a whisper, Blu sings, “I need a pen, I need a pad, I need a place to go to get this shi
t lifted off of my soul.” It’s this same mentality that plagues the chronicling of an average Joe’s routine life in ‘Dancing In The Rain;’ it’s atypical insights like these, ones that branch out from Blu’s typical topic (sometimes that of, but not limited to, religion), that fuels Below the Heavens
. And even if Blu stoops to generics (his argument that it’s love not lust[!] that drives his relationship in ‘Greater Love’), Exile’s production rounds it out well (‘Greater Love’ features prominent samples of “greater love!” in an airy tone, giving a slight romanticism to Blu’s otherwise blunt delivery). He even inserts a little humour into 'Good Life,' a song that finds its protagonist a new father ("When it comes to being a man, shi
, I'm barely getting my feet wet").
But really, it’s DJ Exile’s production that makes the ends meet, the key behind Below the Heavens
success. ‘Soul Rising’’s production wouldn’t seem out of place in Nas’ line-up, while ‘First Things First’ slides down easy on its laid back atmosphere, riding smooth with Blu’s flirty, party mood. Mostly, Below the Heavens
calls to mind the hip-hop that rose in the early ‘90s, fitting snugly with the nostalgic ‘In Remembrance’ that seems peculiar in the one-off feel of Blu’s delivery; you can almost hear others agreeing with him when he starts detailing the drama of his high school years. Below the Heavens
, sorely overlooked in a wave of new, almost equally tasty hip-hop, battles its running time with consistency; it builds in both Blu and Exile’s repertoire, ending on its best foot. Beginning with ‘Below the Heavens.. Pt. I,’ the album ends gracefully with the stripped bare ‘I Am…’ that is decidedly low key after the two-part title track that throws in as much production as it can get before toppling over. It may get graphic (violence, sex, C-sections, oh my!), but it’s tighter than that, never letting itself become memorable for its shock value.
Even if Below the Heavens
finest tracks are the ones tricked out in sincerity, the album isn't without its instant catches. In 'Blu Colla Workers' (clever!), Blu almost simultaneously gets some and "bruises the mic," all while "misery loves company, but I don't need shi
t so don't come to me." It may lack class, but Exile's production sways with Blu's sauntering. Even in the profanity lined 'Juice n' Dranks,' Blu and guest Taraach are too busy chuckling to give any real offense; its computer laser noises provide a stark contrast to its freestyle rapping.
So Below the Heavens
signals in a new, talented MC in the form of Blu, one who, aided by Exile, finds himself with a debut that’s heart may lie in conventions but doesn’t cater to them. Devoid of skits, Blu writes what he knows and, as unoriginal as it may be, he is so endearing that the fact that he never tries to be flashy makes Below the Heavens
all the more intangible. To quote Blu: "It's hard to explain over beats."
We hear ya.