A decade ago, rapper, Blu, and producer, Exile, caught lightning and bottled it on Below the Heavens. Over Exile’s soul-sampling, boom-bap beats, Blu packed tracks with intricate storytelling and unpretentiously profound insights. The album has rightfully endured as a stellar example of the era’s style, and this summer, the pair are capitalizing on that staying power with a nationwide nostalgia tour celebrating the project’s tenth anniversary.
That tour comes to Cafe Stritch this Wednesday. Though the local jazz club may seem an odd venue choice for the hip-hop duo, it isn’t. Most evenings, Stritch hosts a style of jazz that stopped being ground-breaking decades ago. Still, the players who take the Stritch stage are experts in their field. Similarly, Blu and Exile represent the platonic ideal of a certain kind of hip-hop.
Over the last ten years, rap has strayed further and further from its roots. Like jazz and rock before it, the pioneering sounds of the genre have been ripped apart and rearranged by modern practitioners, who push their music into places far removed from where Blu and Exile took it during George W. Bush’s second term.
That doesn’t mean the duo didn’t produce a titanic piece of work. Each beat on “Below the Heavens” goes down as easy and satisfyingly as mashed potatoes. And Blu’s pontificating on the edge of adulthood makes the album truly shine. A recent father at the time the album was made, Blu had sprawling, unrealized dreams.
On Below the Heavens, Blu details the kind of difficult upbringing hip-hop artists have long offered to establish their credibility. He digs into the familiar backpacker trope of finding his nine-to-five unsatisfying. He follows up by emphasizing that he has found a true calling in hip-hop, and bemoans the genre’s obsession with riches, women and violence. Blu urges his listeners to resist these vices, while also admitting he isn’t immune to their temptation.
He deals with common subjects in rap, but he executes flawlessly, punctuating his flow with deeply personal details and novel lyricism—like when he imagines looking at his son and being in awe that this human “really came from [his] nuts.” His passion bleeds through each bar. And you can catch almost every word on the first listen.
Increasingly, rap artists have deemphasized the intelligibility of lyrics in favor of evoking a more provocative, gut-based feeling. In many ways, rap is going through its punk stage—at least sonically. When rock bloated, The Ramones, Sex Pistols and The Clash tore down the genre’s conventions. Young Thug, Migos, Lil Uzi Vert and others do the same now to hip-hop, America’s most popular genre.
Like punk rockers, these hip-hop artists sacrifice crisp annunciation for a more visceral or melodic delivery. Derisively nicknamed “mumble rap,” the moniker couldn’t be less applicable to the innovation because the range of sound that rappers produce nowadays has never been bolder, broader or better.
Old heads have tsk-tsked these changes, just as aging NBA stars have speculated their teams would defeat the unparallelled juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors. They wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean the basketball they once played is bad. Instead, the Warriors had to invent their revelatory style to beat the greats that came before.
And so it goes with Blu and Exile. Their masterpiece sounds nothing like modern rap. In response, some fans lionize the album as “real hip-hop,” in order to disparage the stuff being made today. But artists like Blu and Exile captured the electricity of an era in a way that needs little expansion. Like the Warriors, subsequent rappers had to try something new to top it. In a way, this deviation is a tribute.
After the album’s release, Blu’s career floundered as he clashed with other artists, fan expectations and record label demands. He continued to rap in his stellar straightforward fashion over old-school beats, even as the genre as a whole trended away from that. But across all art forms, most artists must watch as the field they contributed to in their youth veers from their original vision.
Still, there will always be an audience for the way things once were. On Wax Wednesdays, Cafe Stritch plays the vinyl records of icons that may have lost their present relevance, but maintain a timeless appeal. When Blu and Exile perform at this week’s iteration of the event, their music will be in tremendous company.
Blu & Exile
Sep 6, 7pm
Cafe Stritch, San Jose