Below The Heavens is a phrase that immediately strikes one when they read it. Coincidentally, it is the title of the 2007 debut album of Los Angeles rapper-producer duo Blu & Exile.
Looking back at Hip Hop in the 2000s, we can place most popular rappers into one of two lanes. Flashy and “hardened” MCs like 50 Cent, Cam’Ron, Ja Rule and Diddy embody the spirit of the “Bling Era,” an aesthetic that many today still associate with rappers. On the other hand, more eccentric MCs, like Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and OutKast led a resurgence in the popularity of “alternative” hip hop. Generally, compared to their bling counterparts, these alternative rappers employed more sung choruses and “conscious” messages.
This album answers the question: what if alternative rappers hailing from Chicago, like Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, were from Los Angeles instead? As the name suggests, this album skillfully intertwines religious themes with the stories and ideas of an exceptionally talented underground rapper.
Vocal samples are littered by Exile throughout this project, most notably in the opening track, “My World Is…”. Sections of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and The Dells‘ “I Can Sing A Rainbow / Love Is Blue” where they sing “blue” are used in the song’s intro, chorus, and as ad-libs. Blu uses the song to introduce himself and begin the religious motif the album is predicated on. He describes himself as “a product of a God-fearing pastor” in the first verse and exclaims “and my mission’s just beginning, call it Genesis” at the start of the third.
On the fifth track, “In Remembrance of Me,” Blue is backed again by a vocal sample. The chorus of The O’Jays‘ “How Time Flies” repeats as Blu examines and contrasts his childhood, high school experience and current life. Lines like “At 18, I headed off in the streets without guidance / Just the eyes of God watching over me” provide insight into the details of his life. In the next verse, he tells us, “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.” Just like Nas, whose work is subtly referenced throughout this album, Blu, or Johnson Barnes III, is an artist releasing insightful and layered work. When you hear this section, it really grounds the album, making his realness and wisdom more evident.
Track eight, “First Things First” is the broke rapper’s version of J. Cole‘s “Work Out.” In this playful song, Blu does his best to throw game while acknowledging his lack of money, something that girls would usually associate with rappers like him. The lines, “Now, don’t get it twisted broke niggas need love too / And underground rappers like to chill at the club too” encapsulate the feel of the song. We aren’t given a peek into his psyche like we were in prior tracks but instead, we get to feel his personality shine as he skillfully rhymes and progresses the narrative of the track.
On “No Greater Love,” Blu continues the narrative of the last track while returning stylistically to what we’ve already heard. “Theme From Love Story” by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles is sampled, so we hear Smokey sing “there is no greater love” throughout the song. The approach is unconventional, but this is a love song nevertheless. Blu exclaims his love for an unnamed woman and explains the title of the song in the refrain. “Yeah nah, ’cause on the real y’all there is no greater love / People try all the time trying to break us up.”
“The World Is… (Below the Heavens),” track 13, is the climax of the album. Exile interpolates a Nas classic, “The World is Yours.” In the first verse, Blu outlines his journey with religion.
I was trained to be a soldier for GodBlu & Exile, “The World Is… (Below the Heavens)”
But as soon as I used my own thoughts
I kinda got lost in this smog called reality, where hell is a fallacy
And Heaven is a fantasy created by man, so don’t believe in it
You came in here with nothing then you’re leaving with
Nothing so retreat from this world of deceitfulness
But my people it’s time to rise
Realize there’s a heaven whether you think it’s inside or in the sky
Reach for it before it’s gone eternally
And you stuck here below the heavens for eternity
Blu explains that he has had problems reconciling his religious upbringing with the harsh reality of life. We are informed by the rest of the album, that Blu is definitely a spiritual man, but now we learn that he isn’t really a religious one. When interviewed by Passion of the Weiss in 2016, in fact, he said “I’m religious without a religion”. In the next verse, Blu talks at length about hell. So often, people describe themselves as “going through hell” or “in hell” but Blu wants us to understand that “heaven” is what we make it. He tells us, “hell is what you choose to call the present,” and in what are likely the most succinctly powerful lines of the album he closes the track, “So you can call it hell but brah… / I can say I’m below the heavens.”
Fifteen years later, Blu is hailed as a legend of underground rap, and this was the beginning of his ascent. He exhibits so many of the qualities of a great rapper. He teaches but doesn’t preach, he is intellectual but digestible, he has the poise and skill of a star but never sacrifices his bars. As outlined by a 2017 Vice article, the release of this album was botched and Blu’s label went under. Interestingly, that only added to the mythos of the project. With only 3000 CDs originally released, secondhand copies went for hundreds of dollars, a testament to Blu and Exile’s skill, ear for good beats and relatability. Each of these songs is powerful in its own right. Combined with the full and lively production of Exile, Blu’s wit, passion, bars and experience make this album a timeless classic.
Adeboye Adeoye is a student at the University of Georgia studying Economics, Sociology, and Music Business. As an avid playlist maker, he always looks for connections and themes across albums and genres. He listens primarily to Hip Hop but enjoys R&B, Neo-Soul, Pop, Afrobeats, Indie, and more beyond that as well.