#98: Blu & Exile, Below the Heavens (2007)
I like to think that there’s no such thing as time wasted when you’re actively listening to music. Even the most tepid piece of art can teach you something about yourself, giving you another reference point around which to draw a comprehensive map of things that do or don’t inspire you. This isn’t to say that bad albums or movies or paintings don’t exist, but rather that experiencing these can only, in the end, expand your consciousness both outward and inward. Or at least I hope that’s how it works, because otherwise this whole “hundred albums, hundred reviews” project is something of a bust.
Either way, Blu & Exile’s Below the Heavens
, the third album I’m reviewing for said project, is the first that has honestly given me just about nothing
back after a few listens. This is perhaps an issue of time more than anything: not completely enamored of it like many others, I was nonetheless able to give an album like Blowout Comb
(1994) some credit for its historical role as a radical slab of mid-’90s hip hop, whereas this album is barely turning six years old and doesn’t have any sort of cultural heft behind it. But where Digable Planets were able to synthesize an album of undeniable funk and flow from their politics, rapper Blu and his producer Exile are only able to synthesize a dishearteningly blank-stare approach to conscious hip-hop. The path Blu takes is not a dishonorable one--themes of growing up and finding yourself abound--but seems thoroughly emptied of any aesthetic or intellectual import. It is an album stuck in the limbo between the stereotypical sensibilities of the thinking man and the unrestrained weed smoker, lingering for fifteen dull tracks until it just sort of cancels itself out.
It pains me to say something like that, because Below the Heavens
is really quite an earnest project by two deeply talented musicians. Blu’s style can be found elsewhere (Lupe Fiasco seems the most obvious referent), but he pulls it off well, his positive attitude nestling itself nicely into his tight flow--especially on “The World Is (Below the Heavens..),” which is almost sickeningly uplifting. He is, like his peers, inclined to get cheesy once in a while (“My people, it’s time to rise / Realize there’s a Heaven whether you think it’s inside or in the sky”), but that cheesiness is only an extension of just how serious he is. Exile is even better, a direct descendant of Dilla--especially in his quirky use of vocal samples--even if Jay Dee’s wackier instincts have been cleaned up. Almost every production here has a satisfyingly retro feel, each unquantized drum loop and each heavy piano chord hitting with gusto.
So I guess the attack I must wage against this album, well-intentioned though it may be, is that most nebulous of criticisms: it’s just sort of bland. I want to like Blu both as a rapper and as a person but he pretty much spends the album’s duration saying the same things over and over again. The album’s ubiquitous nostalgia thus starts to come off as a sort of defense mechanism, a way to circle back on old habits when the looming prospect of having something new to say sets in. That’s generally okay--I like a good throwback as much as anyone else--but Below the Heavens
feels more than anything like sprinting for an hour and then ending up in the same place you were an hour ago. I almost want to give it bonus points for clearly being a labor of both love and hard work but the thing is just irreparably flaccid
. That leaves me doubting myself: in my review of Blowout Comb
, I railed against those who would choose the ultra-irony of most modern Internet-age hip-hop over the sincerity of the earlier stuff. But if this yawn of a debut album is our contemporary standard of the unfettered, genuine rap personality, I’m considering jumping ship.