“F–k battlin'/ just managing life is challengin'.” That line from “The Narrow Path” personifies the mindset and lyrical style of Los Angeles MC Blu, and it's a sentiment that makes Below the Heavens yet another solid entrant in the school of underground hip-hop, where “realness” means something more grounded than glowering self-promotion. Blu has a fiery, yet humanistic approach to laying out his verse. Even with his supple flow and his knack for constructing gripping rhyme schemes that fans of the Roots or Black Star could appreciate, Blu focuses just as much — if not more — on personifying the tribulations of urban youth as he does on flaunting his own skills. That technique makes his stories of impending, anxiety-provoking fatherhood (“Show Me the Good Life”), his recollections of lost childhood (“In Remembrance of Me”) and his self-conscious but good-natured flirtation (“First Things First”) relatable and likable.
The other half of the equation is Exile's production and its neo-classic update of the early-mid ’90s East Coast sound — all intricately chopped soul vocals and hard-snapping beats — is a perfect fit for Blu's warm voice. Unfairly overlooked in all but the most die-hard underground hip-hop circles when it came out in 2007, Below the Heavens has the makings of one of those future classics that people are going to kick themselves for sleeping on.