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★★★★✩

Below the Heaven

Sound in Color

Released August 28, 2007

In 2009, XXL Magazine named San Pedro, CA rapper Johnson Barnes (a.k.a. Blu) in their Top 10 Freshmen of the Class of ’09. He was in good company — also featured in the dynamic decathlon were Kid Cudi, Wale, Asher Roth and B.o.B. Incidentally, the latter 4 are artists who can claim to have reached at least a basal level of superstardom, while Blu has remained relatively underground. Still, indieness aside, with Below the Heavens, Blu and Exile have managed to produce a debut album that has been lauded again and again by critics as a consummate underground classic.

Below the Heavens can be best described as yet another overarching anthem about teenage pregnancy, indigence, doubt, crime, and repentance. Think Kid CuDi, minus the droning overdose of suburban melancholy, and supplemented with a dash of spiritual self-righteousness. The album’s biggest problem is one of depth: While Blu manages to touch on a wide variety of subjects convergent to the urban ghetto subculture, he never expatiates convincingly on any of them. Unsatisfactorily, I completed the album not entirely convinced that Blu had genuinely experienced most of the events he rapped about. Take this verse:

I got a call from my girl last week

she telling me about that time of the month and how it may not come

dropped the phone right before she said I might have a son

and I started asking God how come

I got dreams I ain’t reached yet — ends that ain’t meet yet

When it comes to being a man, shit I’m barely getting my feet wet.

Unplanned pregnancy, check. Religious allusions, check. A healthy dose of crippling self-doubt, check. But the simple fact is this: I could have written this exact damn verse and no one would have been the wiser. The rest of the album doesn’t alleviate this lack of emotional depth. He sees kids packing guns and laments the media brainwashing them into acceptance of violence and material glamour, and hopes his music can touch them. How charmingly cliche. Compare this to Wu-Tang’s iconic single, C.R.E.A.M., from their equally iconic debut album Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers):

A young youth, yo rockin the gold tooth, ‘Lo goose

only way, I begin to G off was drug loot

and let’s start it like this son, rollin’ with this one

and that one, pullin’ out gats for fun

but it was just a dream for the teen, who was a fiend

started smokin woolies at sixteen

and running up in gates, and doing hits for high stakes

making my way on fire escapes

no question I would speed, for cracks and weed

the combination made my eyes bleed.

There’s a sense of autobiographical grittiness to these lyrics that are seldom found in the lyrical annals of Below the Heavens. But understandably, the Blu: Wu-Tang comparison isn’t quite fair — during the genesis of 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang already consisted of a team of seasoned hip hop giants. Blu in comparison is still an infant, brimming with promise.

It’s not that he hasn’t demonstrated a prodigal amount of lyrical talent. I love it when rappers break free of the oft-constraining beat structure. Blu disregards it with relish — his flow is steam-of-consciousness at its very purest form. It’s hard to discern where one sentence ends and another begins; it all just goes on and on and on, like a child with a million things to say and not enough oxygen in his lungs to afford to pause. It’s truly exhilarating to listen to.

I guess, at the end of it all, I’m conflicted. As a young gun, Blu lacks the lyrical maturity of a seasoned veteran. His thoughts are scattered and wild; he bursts with things to say but rarely finishes a thought. His perception of religion and spirituality is shallow at best. But his intentions are good, his flow and voice are distinctive and exciting, and partner-in-crime Exile provides a fantastically soulful medium for his mental outpourings. And perhaps my words as a critic, especially one with the luxury of privileged aloofness as I type this in my little college dorm on my expensive laptop and speaker set and customized keyboard, carry little meaning to the protagonists of the universe as described in Below the Heavens. As Blu himself said best:

If I wrote it I’m sticking with every cent of it

cause if it goes down I’mma be sinking with my penmanship

just like a captain and you can only imagine how much passion that I put in this

but some magazines try to rate me on how good it is

please, fuck a critic, nigga; this is my life.

Damn straight it is, Blu. I’m looking forward to hearing more of it.