LOVE LETTER TO A CLASSIC: BLU & EXILE – BELOW THE HEAVENS

You never get it back, you know. 

That feeling when you finally sneak past adolescence; the brief ephemera of swaggering youth, the glint in your eye, the quiet invincibility of being 22. It gently fades as we learn, mellow, spread out, and gratefully pass life’s checkpoints.

But, of course, youthful vigour and peaceful maturity are really just two differing shades of fulfilment – and the common colour is unmistakably Blu.

Blu & Exile’s 2007 album, Below The Heavens, is the emphatic debut from Los Angeles natives, Blu (John Barnes), and producer, Exile (Aleksander Thomas Manfredi).

The album rocketed out of the underground in the summer of ’07, garnering critical acclaim and drawing comparisons with Nas’ seminal 1994 debut, Illmatic. The similarities are widespread but best crystallised in a singular, enduring trope: a young man figuring out his place in the world and striding towards destiny with a raised chin.

The shared chromosome with Illmatic is obvious on the album’s opener: ‘My World Is…’. Over a crooning Joni Mitchell sample, Blu sketches his personal manifesto with bristling aggression and not a trace of timidity. “And they still spell my name fucked up on they flyers, it’s B-L-U/ And if you see the E? Drop ‘em…/”

Blu is not asking for permission, he seizes the attention right out of your ears. “See Nas told me it was mine right before ‘Halftime’/ But it’s the fourth quarter and we just getting it…” The L.A. rapper precociously speaks to his budding lore and legend while his mic presence soars like a Super Mario triple jump.

Track two, ’The Narrow Path’, puts flesh on the bones of Blu’s reality. Philosophising on the troublesome liberty of having nothing, spitting: “Poverty is probably the less stressed position to go/ So we don’t have positions to hold…” and tempering self-doubt with a resolute belief in his own direction while reconciling the pitfalls of “Sex, stress and dividends…/”

Blu sets a breakneck pace but the production matches his vibrancy. Exile’s textured, rich beats are silvery clean as Below The Heavens bubbles with a bursting joyfulness. Whether pristine or swashbuckling, Exile finagles a sound and presentation for all situations, think hard whisky in a champagne glass.

The duo’s chemistry melds on ‘So(ul) Amazin’ (Steel Blazin’)’, with Exile’s elegant backdrop illuminating Blu’s ode to self-discovery and purpose. Immediately followed by the impudent head-nodder, ‘Juicen’ Dranks’ (assisted by Blu’s C.R.A.C. rhyming partner, Ta’Raach), both tracks crackle with an energy befitting the album’s electric blue cover. 

Blu’s cognisance of chronology continues on ‘In Remembrance of Me’. This song finds Blu assessing his 22 years on Earth, reaffirming the often overlooked ideal that time is the most precious commodity. 

Again, adjacent to Nas’ ‘Memory Lane’, the emcee is both nostalgic and forward-thinking at a jarringly young age, reflecting on past love, failure, and firsts, Blu ruminates on how he is “Not yet abused by time…/“ with just the right amount of tenderness. An effervescent, wistful instrumental gives credence to Blu’s subtext – although all your vistas are temporary, they remain visible in the bigger picture.

As well as obsessive ambition, struggle is thoughtfully woven into Below The Heavens’ fibres. Blu acknowledges the “Long road ahead of me…/” on the celebratory nod to dedication and sacrifice, ‘Blu Colla Worker’, as well as honestly appraising his strengths and limitations on ‘First Things First’ (featuring Miguel Jontel). 

‘Dancing in the Rain’ typifies Blu’s conceptions of what it is to meaningfully struggle, to suffer as a result of setbacks and painstaking defeats – and to keep coming back. Exile crafts a twinkling, spindly gem behind the boards, complementing Blu’s pendulum-like chorus. 

The latter half of Below The Heavens shifts from struggle to vulnerability. ‘Greater Love’ explores infatuation and the entrancing delirium of buffering romance. 

Carrying into the succeeding track, ‘Show Me the Good Life’ (featuring Aloe Blacc & Joseph) is a testament to Below The Heavens’ impeccable sequencing, as the narrative moves from chasing goals to the consequences of these pursuits – responsibility.

Blu’s braggadocio force of will returns on the lyrical whirlwind, ‘Simply Amazin’. A throwback to hip-hop’s essence and the peach stone at the centre of Below The Heavens. “Y’all need a million-dollar budget and some punch lines here/ All your boy need is one right ear/ And I could probably change the world, fuck you sold-soul rappers…”

At this point, Blu’s rapping is a masterclass in how to show and prove; his performance offering a glimpse into the limitless potential of a dreamer and doer. 

It’s important to acknowledge that Below The Heavens – in all its buoyancy – doesn’t evade the melancholy, rather it is accepted as part of the puzzle. 

And on the beautifully bittersweet, ‘Cold Hearted’, Blu & Exile run a finger over your soul with a tale of how pain comes and it goes – and it’ll likely return. Delicate, floaty sounds from Miguel Jontel beam through Blu’s declarative verses, lamenting the meaning in suffering and beauty in perseverance. 

The penultimate track, ‘The World Is (Below The Heavens)’, begins with a callback to Nas’ ‘The World Is Yours’ and surmises this album’s hollering precept – go get it.

It’s not a victory lap, instead, it’s a carnival – swirling with lights, fireworks and thick plumes of serotonin. It’s a microcosm of all this album represents, struggle precipitating success and – like its spiritual predecessor on Illmatic – a reminder that the world is bigger than the end of your street, your ego, and everything in between. The album warms down with ‘You Are Now in the Clouds With (The Koochie Monstas)’, closing with Miguel Jontel’s harmonising – a farewell to the album’s last sonic vestiges.

Pulling all of this together, it’s interesting to note the words of philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.” Blu & Exile channelled this mantra; their debut album is a propulsive forward thrust, a rallying cry to embrace it all.

For the listener, it’s an invitation to summon the fearlessness of youth. The fullness of time may leave us fed up but we can still live in the now, grasp new experiences and challenges, all while remaining conscious of what’s passing by and what’s up ahead. 

Yes, indeed – below the heavens, it’s all still possible. 

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