Blu & Exile's 'Below the Heavens' Was a Magic Album

Its timeless production, raw vulnerability, and obscure mythology make the 2007 album a quiet classic.
July 17, 2017, 5:15pm
Photo courtesy of Sound in Color

To say 2007 was a strong year for hip-hop feels like an understatement. There were crazy releases at every level, from El-P's I'll Sleep When You're Dead to Kanye West's Graduation to Prodigy's Return of the Mac. Lil Wayne was releasing showstopping verses every other week. And in the midst of it all, there was a modern classic making its way through the noise in the form of Below The Heavens, an unassuming reinterpretation of classic hip-hop sounds through the lens of everyday Los Angeles life by rapper and producer duo Blu & Exile.

Released on July 17, Below The Heavens did not receive instant praise or even much immediate attention, but the accolades eventually began trickling in. Nearly a month after its release, Below The Heavens received a solid 8/10 from RapReviews; the next month, HipHopDX's "joelz" (aka Shake from 2DopeBoyz) threw a 4/5 on it; and by the end of the year, the album began showing up on year-end lists around the web. By 2009, largely off the strength of the project, Blu made it onto XXL's Freshman cover in a seminal class that included Wale, Kid Cudi, and B.o.B. He signed a deal with Warner that positioned him as one of the most closely watched new artists in the game. The impact was more of a slow burn than a wildfire, but, in the end, Below the Heavens emerged as a landmark album.

You can probably thank the label for that whole fiasco. The album's cult following is closely tied to its incredibly botched release through quickly defunct label Sound In Color, who pressed around 3,000 copies to CD. This writer was lucky enough to get one, but as you can probably guess, the eventual hype surrounding the album caused it to go out of print, and Sound In Color dissolved shortly thereafter.

A fuck-up like this wouldn't be that big of a deal in 2017, but ten years ago it spelled a particular fate for the album. The low supply and high demand led to crazy resale prices on second-hand marketplaces like Discogs as word spread, and the album ultimately found most of its audience through bootlegs and file-sharing. It has since been repressed and re-released on both CD and vinyl, and you can now find it on streaming services, causing the original pressing's price to drop. But there was a time when used copies of the original went well into the $100s. That may have been a pain for consumers, but the album's obscurity only fueled its mythology.

People were clearly enchanted by what Blu and Exile were doing on Below The Heavens. There is a raw vulnerability on the album that makes it an enduring listen. Everyone knows what it's like to think we're the shit one minute only to feel like shit the next, and Blu showed a rare talent for capturing it. You can hear this on "The Narrow Path," a beautifully written piece about Blu's passion for his art and his unhappiness with the superficial bullshit of his hometown. Backed by a soulful, rich loop from Exile, Blu raps: "In this world that I'm living in / I've given into sex, stress, and dividends / Los Angeles, metropolis, city of vexed citizens / Folks that smoke infinite dope, and hope living in / Poverty is probably the less stressed position to go."

Then there's "Dancing In The Rain," a low-key jazz-rap joint that embodies the idea of saying "fuck it" and enjoying what you have; the almost-TMI, Romeo and Juliet raps of "No Greater Love" and how Blu flirts with the vocal sample flip from Exile; and the stupid-good verses of closing track "I Am." While the album's sincere, grounded approach resonates throughout, that perspective is perhaps most evident here, as Blu raps, "All 21 years of me, and no it ain't a sucker living that can strike fear in me / 'cause spiritually, I know God's here with me /But physically I'm frail, I weigh a buck, sixty on the scale / And I stand 6 feet and 4 inches." This is music about life as we live it. We've all had our hearts broken, been knee deep in debt (to quote the astounding "Show Me The Good Life"), and experienced familial difficulties (the chilling memories of domestic violence of "Cold Hearted").

Yes as much adoration was deservedly given to Blu for his honest and blunted raps—even the most mediocre beats would have allowed Blu's words to hit reasonably hard—his stories wouldn't resonate quite as strongly without the right production. That's where his musical partner, Exile, comes in. Ex was the more experienced of the two and had already dropped some well-regarded projects with a pre-"I Need a Dollar" Aloe Blacc as the duo Emanon. They had been hearing about a new young rapper around LA, Blu, and had gone to check out one of his performances, he told Red Bull Music Academy. They were obviously impressed.

Together, Blu & Exile were able to craft something truly special, with a timeless feel. While Blu's production is very much steeped in the sample-flipping sound of hip-hop's Golden Era, it all feels fresh and modern listening to it a decade later. None of his sample choices is obvious nor easy, be it the strings of "So(ul) Amazin' (Steel Blazin')" or the guitars of "Dancing In The Rain." All of his flips are effective and complementary, never getting in the way of Blu's easily discernible voice and narrative. "Show Me The Good Life" is a perfect example of what made Ex's work behind the boards so damn memorable. It's not just the way he chops up the sample and tinkers with it (though he is obviously a monster at it). The beat is both dripping with soul and absolutely knocks on speakers that can handle it—and then it transitions into glitchy madness. That bit of playfulness is an almost necessary dose of levity on a more serious cut.

The writer's rare original CD copy of the album

There's a lightning-in-bottle element to the album where each of these choices feels both totally logical and totally unexpected. That special feeling extends to the album's place in a Los Angeles scene that was on the cusp of exploding. Aloe Blacc, then an underground artist on local label Stone's Throw, delivers a pretty great guest verse on "Show Me The Good Life." And a then-unknown singer credited as Miguel Jontel appears on several cuts, including "First Things First" and "Cold Hearted." If you listen to those songs now—or do some quick research online—you'll realize that, yes, it's the same Miguel who went on to record gold records, win a Grammy Award, and release some of R&B's most compelling projects post-2010. As it turns out, he and Blu go back—way back, actually—to high school. The two even recorded tracks together as early as 1999 (when Miguel was only 14), so it only makes sense that they'd continue collaborating on Below The Heavens and elsewhere (like J Dilla's "Sun In My Face").

And yet, despite its future superstar guests and its status in rap lore, Below The Heavens is also a complete anomaly. Talk to any hip-hop head about it, and you'll get into discussions of the what could have or should have been, especially for Blu. Critics and fans alike had him pegged as the next big thing, at least for underground lyrical cats. As Kendrick Lamar would show just a few years later, there was clearly demand for the kind of nuanced, narrative everyman takes on LA life that Blu was sharing. But in Blu's case, his career never really turned out that way or took that path.

Maybe the expectations were unfair, especially given that Blu clearly wanted to do things how he wanted to do them. To understand that all you have to do is look at the two other albums he recorded at the same time: The Piece Talks, an experimental rap record he released in April 2008 with Detroit rapper/producer Ta'Raach under the name C.R.A.C. and Johnson&Jonson, the raw raps and loops album he dropped in September 2008 with producer Mainframe. If you listen to them with a fresh perspective, you'll hear two distinctive and all-around solid projects that ultimately telegraphed Blu's later, more experimental work.

But stacked up against Below The Heavens? Neither those projects nor Blu really stood a chance. The album's shadow and its outsized mythology have unfortunately followed Blu around to this day, which is a shame because dude has really had some damn good albums since then (Exile, too). The pair have moved on as artists. They released another album as a duo that was definitely not a Below The Heavens 2—it's really good, though!—and have been steadily doing their thing on the solo tip (Blu especially).

Below The Heavens, though, is very much their magnum opus, and it deserves to be recognized as such. It's only fitting, then, that they're headlining a mini-festival of sorts on July 27 that centers on the album's anniversary and highlights other frequent collaborators and members in the scene, including Fashawn, Emanon, and Dag Savage (Exile & Johaz). While it promises to be a more low-key event than the summer's blockbuster events, that seems appropriate. After all, the magic of Below The Heavens is its quiet but assured brilliance, the way it turns the mundane into the sublime. It's worth throwing a party for, but it's best celebrated, too, as part of the fabric of everyday life.

Andrew Martin is a (so amazing) writer based in Ohio. Follow him on Twitter.