One of the best rap albums and ground-breaking underground records of the 2000s celebrates its 10th anniversary today.
Blu & Exile‘s Below The Heavens dropped July 17, 2007 — about two months before Shake and Meka started this website. While the producer was known around small Internet circles because of his work with Emanon, Blu and Exile — California natives — as a pair became one of the first mainstream blog successes with their joint album.
Below The Heavens is a coming-of-age tale of a young black man in Los Angeles whose relationships, career and mental well-being are at a cross-roads, speaking his worries about daily life over dusty-but-lively soul-sampling productions from one of the best to ever do it on the MPC. But this album can’t be boiled down to a sentence — it’s too great for that.
Blu and Exile met through a familiar name: Aloe Blacc. Now know as successful mainstream soul singer, Blacc began his career alongside Exile as a rapper with Emanon. They were becoming more well known outside of the Los Angeles music scene when Blacc introduced Blu to the esteemed producer. “Really, after the first song we made together in the studio we both knew we needed to make an album together,” Exile recalled in a 2014 interview.
Blacc and Miguel, whom Blacc, Exile and Blu all knew and worked with, both featured on Below The Heavens along with Ta’Raach, but Blu and Exile largely navigated the 15 tracks by themselves. The legends of Nas and Pete Rock show up on “The World Is…” where Exile does a signature update on Rock’s “The World Is Yours” production while Blu channels the lyricism of rap greats to help drive home how he gets through this really fucking hard thing called life: “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 and Exile’s careers have wove together then apart since then. They made another album Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them, which some argue is better than Heavens, along with a couple small EPs and one-off collaborations. Exile continues pushing his Dirty Science label with the likes of Choosey, Dag Savage, Denmark Vessey and others. Blu, on the other hand, released some of raps most experimental and genre-bending albums of the last ten years (Jesus, No York, Her Favorite Colo(u)r), at times throwing copies of his yet-to-be-released label debut into crowds at shows after a busted Warner Bros. deal and years of living in label escrow made him take matters into his own hands. No matter their successes apart, though, it’ll be hard to forget where much of the rap world first came to know of Johnson Barnes and Aleksander Manfredi.
Shake, Meka and I all have a favorite song: “Dancing In The Rain.” So at the very least, listen to that today. There will be great stories and takes on the album shared throughout the day and week by various platforms, I’m sure, and I’ll update the post throughout the day as I see them.
But in the meantime, we’ve got a stream of Below the Heavens below, and we’ve got a poll for y’all to partake in to pick your favorite song. I’m sure the answers will be diverse.