Give Them Their Roses: Blu & Exile

Johnson Barnes, also known by his stage persona, "Blu" is an West Coast rapper raised in Los Angeles, California. After relocating to San Pedro, he started to master his craft by engaging in cyphers, creating mixtapes and freestyling. After collaborating with Aloe Blacc, Blu was introduced to Exile.

Aleksander Manfredi, more commonly known as Exile, started out as a producer and DJ, heavily inspired by J Dilla. Exile attended one of Blu’s performances and was so impressed that he asked Blu to feature on his solo project. After this,  the official formation of the duo "Blu & Exile" occurred, and their debut album.

Blu & Exile's first album together as a duo came in 2007, with "Below The Heavens". A definitive cult classic. The beauty of the album lies in the stage of life that Blu was in at the time. Still only in his early 20s, Blu depicts story of his life thus far, through the eyes of an adolescent effectively striving to become a young adult. The production on this album is stunning. Exile shows his capabilities as a producer, through his use of samples and extravagant production (which is layered with instruments and has a lot of elements of boom-bap rap).

Being 15 tracks deep, there is a loose concept with the idea of "Below The Heavens", and being subjected to the struggles that come with the human experience on earth (below) while looking to reach higher ground (the heavens).

The first few tracks on Below The Heavens give you a brief description of Blu: From his upbringing in Los Angeles, his ability as a rapper and a vague sense of who he is as we see the exterior of the man. As the album unravels, we begin see the interior, and the more introspective nature of Blu.

Walking us through the pressures and depressions that come with the music industry on "Dancing in the rain". The reality of financial insecurity that is often unspoken of in Hip-Hop. And the memories of love, death, ambition that have shaped him into who he is on "In Remembrance" and "Cold Hearted". All relatable to the average person.

Blu showcases his ability to dive into various topics and carry a depth in his storytelling and concepts throughout the album.  Before the title track, "Below The Heavens", wraps up the entire album and theme beautifully. Justifying the praise this album receives.

Blu & Exile's second album "Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them" came 5 years later, in 2012. The way it all happened is quite intriguing, because it seems like it was a mistake that ended up becoming this body of work. As the album came about when Exile sent Blu 50 beats (which Blu didn't feel was the vibe of the project he was working on at the time) but he ended up recording 25 songs. Ultimately birthing the album, with 17 final tracks.

Exile's production saw a change from Below The Heavens. While he still maintained his craft of sampling, the beats on here feel a lot more sombre, with a more lo-fi approach to them. And looking at the way, Blu also approached this album from a lyrical perspective, I like to view this album as their "mid-life crisis" of sorts, mentally and artistically.

Blu now being in his late 20s (near 30), the subject matter seems to resonate with that idea of a "mid-life crisis" that I previously mentioned. As Blu no longer raps with the same energy or pace that he did prior, adopting a more mellow delivery. Almost like someone telling a story of self-reflection, which Exile's production plays into as well.

"Maybe One Day" sees Blu looking back on things that he used to view as important. From material wealth to marijuana. On "O'Heaven" (which is one of my favourites produced tracks on the album), Blu raps about things that he feels like he still wants to accomplish outside of music. Goals that he's set out for himself and has to tick off his list, while being grateful of everything in his life thus far.

"The Only One" shows Blu mention the lack of heritage/identity he felt as an African American, due to the disconnect he had with his African side/roots. Everything points towards Blu trying to find his way in life. From the mention of loneliness without having a significant other to wake up to. Casual day-to-day living. The analysis of what the point of money is. And wondering what his purpose is. It feels like a "mid-life crisis".

And now in 2020, Blu & Exile have returned with what might be my favourite hip-hop album of the year in "Miles". There's a lot to admire about this album, as it truly feels like everything has come full circle in Blu's growth. Now aged into his late 30s, he has connected all the dots that he was searching for in his 20s.

Miles' production is vast, expressive and shows so much variety. From being gorgeously sampled and jazzy to being shaped by African influences. And the constant sample of the word "Blue/Blu" which is a nice touch by Exile. Conceptually, at 20 tracks, the album deals with various themes from Blu as a person and the influences that have shaped him into that. Tying into the name 'Miles' via Miles Davis and the miles he has travelled in life.

How he has found contentment in what his position in life and music is. And now seeming to have made peace and found what he was looking for. As there are various elements which show that he is entirely self-aware in his African roots that used to plague him before - now becoming something of admiration. He goes further and speaks about his religion and relationship with his God. He’s comfortable enough to express his religion while still being capable of showing the questions of morality that he has for his God while maintaining his faith.

He explores topics like inspiration, loss, joy, family and more - with a great level of maturity, poetic rhyming and great production (and a rare rapping performance) accompanied to Blu by Exile.

All in all, Blu & Exile are amazing artists in their own right. But my favourite work of theirs is always together. Being one of my favourite Hip-Hop duos ever. So much like the title of their second album, let's give them their flowers while they can still smell them.

Written by Ipeleng Thobejane | Twitter @InsightThobe
Co-written by Unathi Mogwera | Twitter @JustGambinoo
Edited by Dithekgo Mogadime | Twitter @DithekgoM

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