In 2007, John Barnes III a.k.a. Blu collaborated with producer Exile to create the underground hip-hop sensation “Below The Heavens.” The album was praised by critics and rap media outlets such as HipHopDX as a welcome revitalization of the 90s-influenced, lyrically-focused, narrative-centered music that seemed to be fading from prominence in popular culture. Blu was praised for his story-telling, impressive flows and melodic cadence. Exile was praised for his brilliant sampling, trippy sound design and variety. It felt as if lightning had struck.
However, as Blu attempted to bottle and sell this lightning over the course of his career, it became obvious that there was something about his collaboration with Exile that couldn’t be replicated at will. From 2007 to 2012 he dropped six more projects (none of which included Exile) that ranged from EP to full studio album, all of which fell much flatter than his debut. He didn’t find significant praise again until 2012 when he teamed with Exile for “Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them.” While this album was good, it was followed by another musical doldrum.
Sure, Blu kept putting out projects at the same rate, but only his most hardcore fans seemed enthusiastic at all. I was personally content to just keep “Below The Heavens” in my personal vault of favorite hip-hop albums and forget that Blu was still an active rapper, but then something happened.
Blu and Exile announced that they were releasing a new collab album called “In The Beginning: Before The Heavens,” which would comprise of tracks from their 2007 session that never made it on “Below The Heavens.” Some of the tracks were taken from the original cut of the album before it was edited for public release (so underground hip-hop heads may recognize them), while others were pulled form a vault of around forty songs that had been left on the cutting room floor. Is this album the return of the magic we fell in love with a decade ago?
In short: kind of.
The album opens with one of its strongest tracks “Soul Provider.” The production is, of course, excellent. There is a vocal sample that has been sped up and raised in pitch for the College Dropout and chipmunk effect that bounces rhythmically on a solid bass line. Blu comes in with the braggadocio we saw in “Below The Heavens” and his flow is ear candy. Then the third verse comes and at first, it was my favorite verse of three, but upon closer examination I realized that I actually recognized it. I pulled up “Simply Amazing” from “Below the Heavens” and saw why: Blu uses his entire third verse from “Simply Amazing” on this track. It works, like really well, but it does say something that the strongest part of the track is from a song off “Below the Heavens.”
As the album continues, it becomes clear why certain songs were chosen for his debut and others were left on the cutting room floor, and that reason has nothing to do with Exile. Exile brings his best to almost every track. The production is varied, soulful, and exceptionally clever in its use of instrumentation. Stand-outs include “Another Day” with its catchy piano riffs and funky bass, “Life is a Gamble” with its ominous synth, “Hard Workers” with its lively wind section, “Sold the Soul” with its dreamy vocals and “Stress Off the Chest” whose Spanish-influenced guitar is reminiscent of “Dancing in the Rain.”
The problem, unfortunately, has more to do with Blu. It isn’t that he doesn’t write well, or that he can’t spit, but he struggles with being repetitive. A good handful of the songs on this album feel as if they are sloppier or less complex versions of his approaches on “Below The Heavens.” The song “Party Of Two” has a great beat that is sort of wasted on Blu’s lyrics about love and lust. It isn’t that it’s bad, it’s just exactly the same as songs such as “Greater Love” and “First Things First,” except that it’s a littler simpler and a little more misogynistic.
“Back to Basics” seems particularly weak, even from Exile, but it does reveal the true nature of the album. The project seems to focus on capturing the “underground” vibe, leaving things unmastered and rough. And while it is a little frustrating to not hear the duo at their peak, it gives you a vivd image of Blu in the studio with his pen and pad, grinding out tracks, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. By the time the album is over, you feel like you have watched Blu find his voice, the voice he put on display in “Below The Heavens.”
What makes Blu’s attempt to find his voice even more compelling is that when he gets it right, he really gets it right. “Life is a Gamble,” for example, possesses an angry energy that makes a welcome change of pace on an otherwise chill album. Blu and his features all slay this track, expressing simultaneously a raw frustration and a calculated determination to push through the hardships of an underprivileged life. “Hot For Y’all” is more fun, but still shows off the vivid images and pleasing flows that Blu became known for as well as some straight BARS from Donel Smokes.
Personally I also really like Blu’s performance on “Sold the Soul” despite its strangeness. His flow is the closest to talking that I’ve ever heard form Blu. He doesn’t speak with his crisp emphasis but a slow bounce that forces you to listen to what he is saying more than the music. Then he starts singing, which he does more on this track than on any of the other tracks of this project, despite the fact that it is barely mixed or mastered. Not everyone will love this song, but for me it was so nice to hear something different.
By the time he gets to his last track, “Stress Off The Chest,” he is back to doing what he does best: walking us through his city and his stream of consciousness. It is wonderfully intimate and melodic, and it reminds the Blu fan why they were excited for this album in the first place. So while the project is weighed down by repetitiveness and a lack of expertise from a young Blu, it is still a refreshing breath of nostalgia. If you like 90s influenced rap, or if you liked “Below the Heavens,” then definitely don’t miss this one.