Happy 10th Anniversary to Blu & Exile’s debut album Below the Heavens, originally released on July 17, 2007.
Creating a well-rounded album is difficult business. In hip-hop, critics can and do complain about their favorite artists being too one-dimensional. On one hand, some lament rappers who limit their subject matter, rhyme over the same type of beats, and spend their careers making the same song over and over. On the other hand, rappers’ attempts to break free of their comfort zone can often be even clumsier. The resulting albums come across as the artist checking boxes: the girl song, the club song, the weed song, the down-South appeal song, etc. And this phenomenon is by no means limited to rappers of the ’00s. The golden age of rap during the late ’80s and early ’90s is littered with disposable attempts at hip-hop house and half-assed imitations of LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.”
As with most things in music, the most convincingly well-rounded albums happen organically. The artist or group has an official or unofficial theme for their album, and the tracks, which are expressions of that central theme, fall into place naturally. One of the most artistically successful executions of a well-rounded hip-hop album built around a theme is Below the Heavens, the first collaborative album between John “Blu” Barnes III and Aleksander “Exile” Manfredi. Released 10 years ago, the album touches on many styles and topics, while being held together by the deeper idea of the pursuit of happiness in life.
By the time Below the Heavens dropped in 2007, Blu had been working in the L.A. scene for years, striving to secure a record deal and performing whenever he could. He had the attention of both underground and mainstream producers and labels, and was looking for the best means to tell his story. Below the Heavens is the story of his life to that point, his ruminations on his life and upbringing. He reflects upon being the product of a father who was a hip-hop fan, and a mother and pastor stepfather who forbade him from listening to secular music.
Though it’s always easiest to focus on the lyrical side of albums like this one, Exile is just as integral to the success of Below the Heavens. Exile had also spent years working hard to establish himself by 2007 and already had three projects to his name. He had released two albums as one half of Emanon, a duo comprised of himself and Aloe Blacc, the rapper/singer who is now best known for pop songs like ‘I Need a Dollar” and “The Man.” Exile also put together the 2006 compilation entitled Dirty Science, where he collaborated with established artists like Slum Village, Ghostface Killah, and Kardinal Official, but also partnered with up-and-coming Los Angeles artists like Blu, Co$$, Johas, and the then-unknown soul singer Miguel Jontel.
After meeting Blu through Aloe Blacc, Exile worked with the younger rapper to create the perfect sonic backdrop to the story of Blu’s life so far. The pairing is a symbiotic relationship, like all great “One rapper/one producer” collaborative albums are. When Blu refers to the pairing as the “new Pete [Rock] and C.L. [Smooth],” it’s an apt analogy, as Exile’s beats are perfect for Blu’s rhyme style, with his lyrics and flow meshing with Exile’s sound perfectly. It may be a bold statement, but Below the Heavens serves as Mecca And The Soul Brother’s spiritual sequel 15 years after the release of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth tour de force, an album that explores life and all its complications, spearheaded by a partnership of equals between the emcee and the producer.
Below the Heavens starts off strong with “My World Is…,” one of the best album-opening tracks of the ’00s. Musically, the track pulses with energy, hitting as strong and as hard as a shot of straight adrenaline, as Exile loops the breakdown to The Dells’ “I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love is Blue.” Lyrically, “My World Is…” serves as Blu’s thesis statement for Below the Heavens, repping where’s he’s from, sharing some of his background, and even expressing a little of his worldview. Mostly though, it features a stream of battle rhymes aimed at proclaiming his lyrical dominance, as he expertly pieces together words and phrases into his unique rhyme scheme: “And they still spell my name fucked up on their flyers / It’s B-L-U, and if you see the ‘E,’ drop ’em / It’s like they dropped E from the beats E is dropping / Got your peeps eavesdropping and the world keeps watching him.” The track is strengthened by Exile interspersing the samples of the Dells’ vocals throughout his verses, and from the sheer heat of Blu’s metaphors, as he proclaims, “I walk down blocks as if the sun had called me n%#&a.”
Like all good Los Angeles rap disciples, Blu excels at doing straight lyrical shit, coming across as a young rapper ready to make a name for himself. On the slower-tempo “So(ul) Amazin’ (Steel Blazin’)” he kicks unique flow patterns and rhyme schemes over a soulful keyboard loop and the classic “Papa Was Too” break, rapping “I flow krypton, knock your Superman off his feet with his kicks on / N%#&as keep my shit on repeat, and no matter which song I get on / I shit on beats, pull out my dick and take a piss on trees / I’m raw dogging it, look, my rhyme lines flow sweeter than swine / So any mic that I find, I got the right to be hogging it.”
“Simply Amazin’ (Soul Rising)” is “So(ul) Amazin’s” more upbeat sequel (or possibly just a lyrical remix). Blu spits over a beautifully chopped sample of The Dells’ “Always Together,” rapping, “Your spirits is swayed / every time my lyrics is played / So please stop givin' these lyricists praise / ’Cause they bluffing while they busting with a serious face / And it’s unbearable / These stereo-rap tracks are terrible / I’m here to take care of you wack cats / And bury you back at / Wherever you came from / I’m carrying this game on my back 'til the pain's numb.”
But at its core, Below the Heavens is a “coming of age” album. Many of Blu’s verses reflect a 22-year-old man still learning to cope with adulthood and grown-up responsibility. “In Remembrance of Me” functions as Blu’s unofficial memoir, as he reminisces about both the conventional and the complicated facets of his upbringing. In vivid detail, he describes his pursuit of the opposite sex and high school dreams of becoming a professional basketball player. He juxtaposes these tales with the story of losing his virginity while his father was cheating on his stepmother in another room and heading off in to the streets of Los Angeles at the age of 18, alone without guidance. It’s an incredibly introspective track, showing a young man who has grown wiser through his own trials and tribulations, contemplating how much life he’s experienced in such a short amount of time. He raps, “My mom thought that I was too young to make this song / Because I’m only 22, but John Barnes has a long path behind him / I’m walking in the shoes of a giant.” For the musical backdrop, Exile manipulates the vocals, strings, and piano from the O’Jays’ “How Times Flies” to match the pensive and melancholy mood of the rhymes.
Another dominant theme of Below the Heavens is the struggle to make a good life for yourself legally in Los Angeles. Blu explores his efforts to live the right way and not succumb to temptation on “The Narrow Path.” Here Exile expertly flips the introduction to Iron Butterfly’s “Real Fright,” pairing it with a cracking drum track, to transform it into something meditative yet inspiring. Blu raps, “These ladies play dirty games when you get to grinding / Where n%#&as pitch as quick as Nolan Ryan / Holding iron, blowing smoke, elope in fire, flame spitting / The game is just a way to escape and our pain is just a way we can relate to folks crying / Finding ways I can make a difference / But fuck wishing on a star / ’Cause the percentage of getting what you envisioned is small / And the stars barely shine in the city, so we’re blinded / By the man-made bright lights, making my eyes shifty.”
“Show Me the Good Life,” explores similar territory. With his first verse, Blu imagines himself discovering that’s he going to be a father, then frantically trying to find a way to best secure his child’s future, knowing that he has to do whatever is necessary to put food on the table, yet fighting temptation to take the illegal route. Blu is joined by Aloe Blacc, who contributes a guest verse and provides the song’s chorus. Though the pop jams he creates these days can be a little cheesy, a decade ago Aloe Blacc was quite the lyricist, as he drops a strong verse about drawing strength from the lessons and words of his grandmother: “Lift the soul when you crying ’til you reach the gates of heaven / Like your chariot is carrying children who going blind / And you going to get their sight back, when all they see is night black / Believe in everything that you doing and just like that / Things will happen for you, keep shining them rays / It’s bright enough to spread grace over a million graves.”
“Dancing in the Rain” is another of the album’s more introspective tracks, and one of the best songs on the album. Blu describes his frustration with the artistic process and his struggles to pay rent while recording music. It’s a soulful exhibition, as Exile loops a piano, jazz guitar, and harp to provide the proper soundscape. The second verse of the song, where he attempts to find inspiration to keep writing rhymes, is one of his best ever, as he raps, “I left the office, got a phone, and called my partner Jack / And I asked him, ‘Remind me why I'm rapping.’ / And right before he answered I remembered my passion / In the past, when I was scribbling in my tablet / To box out my mom and dad scrapping / To help me when my grandmother passed / Plus the many times when I was homeless / And the times when I was broke / And the music made a way when I was hopeless.”
Below the Heavens also served as one of the first extended introductions to the aforementioned Miguel Jontel. More recently known for acclaimed albums like Kaleidoscope Dream (2012) and Wildheart (2015), the Los Angeles-born singer who now goes by his simpler moniker Miguel is featured across Below the Heavens, and is an asset throughout. Singing on the choruses of hip-hop tracks has been a tricky business for over three decades, but Miguel’s contributions to Below the Heavens are successful. His vocals on many of the songs add to the album’s soulfulness, enhancing the album’s atmosphere, rather than distracting from Blu’s raps or Exile’s beats.
Miguel’s background vocals are an important component to “Cold Hearted,” where Blu reflects on the pain that he’s witnessed growing up in a single protracted verse. Blu considers the pain of his mother as she was abused by his father and other men that subsequently entered her life, and the pain that he went through as a child being forced to witness it. Throughout the song, he explains he became a “dumb kid with a gun,” but was able to eventually escape the cycle of violence through his mother’s efforts and the life lessons that she taught him.
Despite the descriptions of familial turbulence and struggles with figuring out how to survive in Los Angeles, Below the Heavens is not a grim album. Often there’s a fun goofiness to it, particularly when Blu decides to explore his pursuit of female companionship. Both “Blue Collar Workers” and “First Things First” concern Blu’s attempts to find the right woman. The latter is the stronger cut, in which Blu describes stepping to a young woman, trying to find the right way to approach her and using the right words to appeal to her. He follows the song up with “No Greater Love,” where he now finds himself in a happy relationship, searching for the right words to describe his happiness, and envisioning a happy future with his loving wife and children.
The album reaches its zenith with “The World Is… (Below the Heavens),” which brings together the album’s themes. The soaring, two-part, horn-driven track, interspersed with vocals sampled from the Impressions’ “I’m So Proud,” is also the album’s most spiritual song. Blu speaks from the heart, explaining that life is what you make it. He raps about his own experiences facing his own “Hell on Earth” as a youth: “I was raised by a reverend yet the lessons didn't help / Had to get ‘em for myself / I was told Hell is hot but had to feel it for myself / So I left home / As a young child smiling as I stepped on / Facing a world butt-naked without my weapon / I lost my smile and exchange put a vest on.” He expounds that by surviving what life throws at you and learning to think for yourself and accept the world as it is, everyone can create their own path to reach heaven on earth. Creating inspirational hip-hop can be even trickier than adding supporting vocals on a chorus, but here Blu gets both right.
Below the Heavens ends with “I Am…,” a companion piece to the leadoff track “My World Is….” The song is a 7-minute braggadocio rap exhibition, with Blu again displaying his skills. This time, Exile manipulates the song “I Am Blue” by Grover (as in the blue-furred Muppet), to make it so that Blu is recording a duet of sorts with the felt-singer. Exile himself also picks the mic, trading lines with Blu for the song’s final verse. After so much heavy material, the song provides a much-needed, lighter respite and ends the album on a fun note.
Below the Heavens soon achieved legendary status after its release, if for no other reason than physical copies become so hard to find. Sound in Color, the label that distributed the album, went bankrupt soon after Below the Heavens’ release, making the album go out of print just after it was catching steam. Even 10 years ago, the idea of the digital album, much less streaming an album, had yet to fully take hold in the busy buyer’s conscience. As a result, for a while the only way for many to find the album was via illegal downloads. The album has since been re-released twice, once in 2012 and again in 2014.
Both Blu and Exile have gone on to have prolific careers. Below the Heavens was one of three albums that Blu had recorded by the time Below the Heavens dropped, and the album’s critical success helped lead to the commercial release of two additional LPs. In 2008, he dropped the self-titled Johnson&Jonson album with L.A. producer Mainframe. Later that year, he released C.R.A.C.’s The Piece Talks, a collaborative album with Detroit MC/producer Ta’Raach. He’s since released close to a dozen solo albums, collaborative albums, and EPs. He has worked extensively with the likes of Madlib, Nottz, and Union Analogtronics, and often self-produces his own material.
Exile has stayed busy as well, releasing his Radio instrumental album in 2009 and 4TRK Mind in 2011, which featured him handling most of the rapping duties. He’s also produced tracks for artists like Snoop Dogg & Wiz Khalifa, Pharoahe Monch, and Big Sean, and teamed with Fresno-rapper Fashawn to produce his 2009 debut album Boy Meets World in its entirety. Blu and Exile re-teamed to release their follow-up album, Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them in 2012. It was a worthy follow-up, although it didn’t quite reach the heights of Below the Heavens.
A decade later, Below the Heavens still stands as a towering achievement. It’s a throwback album that captures the spirit of the best hip-hop albums of late ’80s and ’90s, while not mimicking their sound, and instead capturing the underlying feeling that held them together. Not to be too cliché, but it finds the successful balance between being funny, haunting, and inspiring, much like all of human existence. It’s the story of a 22-year-old man who reflects upon what feels like a life in full, with the knowledge that his entire life still lies ahead.