In the midst of a constantly evolving hip-hop scene driven by eccentricity, irony, and genre-bending innovation, “old school” hip-hop seems almost foreign and outdated. Blu & Exile’s latest album, however, appeals to lovers of nostalgia by giving listeners a blast back to what many call the golden age of hip-hop.
In the Beginning: Before the Heavens is a compilation of previously unreleased songs from the original recording sessions of the duo’s magnum opus, Below the Heavens. In many ways, their newest offering feels like a time capsule from 2007, with familiar summery beats and assured but playful lyricism.
In 2007, the relatively new hip-hop duo released Below the Heavens, which charmed lovers of hip-hop around the world with its warm jazz and soul-inspired production, everyman lyricism, and throwbacks to the best of the golden age of hip-hop. The record became a critically acclaimed staple of West Coast hip-hop and is hailed as one of the greatest underground hip-hop albums of all time.
It’s easy to understand why Below the Heavens is so loved. Exile’s warm, sunny production combined with Blu’s bright-eyed, honest optimism simultaneously delights and inspires listeners. With the subject matter ranging from coming-of-age and love to concerns about the intersection of crime and poverty, the record feels more like an honest stream-of-consciousness than the carefully crafted masterpiece that it actually is. It’s this close proximity to the listener that makes the album so special and personal.
At the same time, Blu & Exile managed to personify everything lovely about California: youth, warmth, seemingly endless summer days; a landscape flawed but full of potential and hope. Listening to Below the Heavens feels like cruising on your bike on a warm summer day, riding the swings at the park with a neighborhood crush, licking melted ice cream off of your fingers.
It seems appropriate, then, that Blu & Exile would release the companion album to Below the Heavens now, as mainstream hip-hop finds itself enamored with an ironic and at times disheartening self-deprecation. It is also suitable that the album see light during the increasingly uncertain political and sociocultural climate permeating the country.
The album feels like a proper prelude. Exile’s production is notably less complex and layered, instead more characterized by repetition of short samples. This is especially apparent on the album’s unofficial lead single, “Constellations,” which employs just a few slightly off-tune organ chords and a simple, grainy bassline. In contrast to the fullness of songs like “In Remembrance” on Below the Heavens, “Constellations” sounds almost childlike in its simplicity. Bare production usually leaves room for the lyrics of a song to shine. On this track, however, Blu’s lyricism is just mediocre enough to keep you listening without absorbing anything he says.
Such is the case with most songs on the album, unfortunately. The majority of the album feels underproduced and underwritten, and as a whole, Before the Heavens isn’t nearly as compelling or engaging as its predecessor.
The differences between the production of both albums is especially notable. Most tracks share the simplicity and repetitiveness of “Constellations,” lacking the subtlety and detail that initially endeared many fans to Exile’s production. The subject matter covered by the album is similarly uncompelling: Blu raps about his love of hip-hop and his prowess as a rapper and not much more than that.
The one exception on Before the Heavens is “Things We Say.” It begins with a heartbreakingly-sweet piano riff and a dialogue between Blu and a guest rapper, Aloe Blacc: “Man what if / What if this is just / Just dreams from yesterday?”
On the track, the two rappers muse about the power of speech and its potential to turn words into reality, ending with the suggestion that words possess the power to make dreams come true. It’s an introspective and sweet track representative of everything Below the Heavens stood for, and everything Before the Heavens fails to be.
Fans will enjoy Before the Heavens if they listen to it for what it is — an album of rejects, filled with mildly catchy and fun songs that the duo scrapped before recording their most iconic work. There’s something special, regardless of quality, of being able to take an intimate look into the creation of one of the most iconic underground hip-hop albums of all time.