This is rap, par excellence. A coup de maître in rhythmic form. It’s hard to really put together adjectives that can adequately describe not only the amount of skill with the pen, but delivery, gravitas, and production it takes to put together a project that is this… flawless. 10 years is a long time to care about anything. Remember how in 2007 you loved matching everything you wore, from your two-tone durag down to your Ice Cream sneakers (Jordan Fusions for the less-forward thinking of us)? Remember that friend or significant other from high school, that you swore you would stay connected with? Yeah me neither. Tastes change, life happens, we went from a president who knows how to give dap and writes his own speeches, to one that looks like he gets spray tans from precocious color-blind marsupials. All in the span of a decade. And in all that, this standard of excellence remains. A joining of flavorful genius between Blu and Exile that ten years later still has the aftertaste of greatness. In the midst of what they served us, the idea of clinging fiercely to self in all its flaws, and coloring your present world with palette of your desire runs throughout the album.
Below the Heavens is a superb body of work, sweet and big bodied, without being overwhelming like a warm slice of cornbread slathered in butter and honey. Just off the strength of the production quality alone, this is a classic. To paraphrase the people of the bayou, Exile really knows how to pepper the gumbo. Soulful and sultry sounds sashay their way throughout the entirety of this body of work. And Blu rises to the occasion at every turn, using every breakdown and flip to showcase a way with the pen that would make the designer of Alcatraz jealous. Rapping shouldn’t be this easy. Blu and Exile together on this album are a perfect marriage, the musical representation of the Kobe to Shaq alley-oop in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
This was the beginning of the Neo-West. A changing of the guard, a collection of artists who’s sound & concepts diverged from the narrow path. This is no slight to the forerunners of this era. But for those who grew up in churches and downloading mixtapes on LimeWire from artists outside of their region, business as usual was no longer enough. We welcomed a cacophony of sounds, from syrupy sluggish beats of the south to the hard hitting hymns of Harlem. Blu & Exile enveloped themselves in all of that, and brought to term a project that has grown with us over the course of a decade. A globalization of music, while still being so distinctly locally Los Angeles. The artists who populate the landscape of southern California today, are offshoots of this ideal. Allowing for a variance in sound and concept that has made the west coast a talent rich pool of voices. This is one of those cases where, the more chefs there are in the kitchen, the better the product.
Below the Heavens reads like a letter to a younger self. Far enough in the future that it fields out lessons beyond what one would expect from a person of Blu’s seasoning. Near enough to his present self, that it doesn’t come off as preachy, but more so in depth observations of a soul sailing through the streets of LA figuring things out as they cross his bow. It’s a coming of age story, equipped with anecdotes of a bygone (yet ever close at hand) youth and the requisite gems unearthed through the everyday trials of life. But in his own words, “I’m not tryna spread no knowledge dude.” This is often where other artists have failed who veered away from the gangster heavy styles of the early 2000s. Below the Heavens never felt like an overly conscious body of work, it felt like bare honesty, embracing the godly and the party.
Your favorite rapper probably isn’t selfish enough. Not in the sense of having a preternatural ability to talk about themselves in grandiose terms (that’s a necessary prerequisite for being a mc). More in the vein of an internal singular focus on only creating art that he wants, without much care for how it’s received. Fans are finicky. Fame is fleeting. The magazines who helped make you, will do their best to break you. So making music for anyone but yourself doesn’t really compute. “Fuck a critic, nigga this is my life.” It’s a tradeoff artists have often had to make, and very few outside of the J. Coles and Kendricks have the social capital to be able to make music that is true to them and still have hordes of support. From core fans and the masses that materialized their aforementioned support in album sales and sold out arenas. Blu knew this wasn’t his path, early on he might have thought he would be “stretched out riding limos and such,” but quickly realized it is better to focus on cultivating the field where you presently are at. What we received because of this mindset, is music that invites you into a world in flux, a partially built house with flawed beginnings but clear blueprints for an estate formed on lofty ideals. This is the type of selfishness we should want from our favorite artists, honest looks into the journey of their life without a care as to how the footprints are perceived.
Every person is a painter. Whether you want to take the brush provided you and paint beautiful landscapes, or stick to one dimensional figures, the choice is yours. Therein lies one of the central themes of this album, how you choose to color your canvas is a choice of your own. If you choose to be in a colorless field, as opposed to blessed thoughts that is a fate of your own creation. And for an artist trudging through the mire of Los Angeles, creating art that showcases the world you live in Below the Heavens, painting a picture of hopeful growth is the only way to thrive for over a decade. That’s real.
You can follow Jotham @jothamkitara, where he’ll annoy you with his musings on the Lakers summer camp roster while trying to find the best fried chicken sammich in California