Of Sound Mind | Blu & Exile’s “Miles”

Of Sound Mind is a biweekly blog about new albums, old albums, forgotten albums, overrated albums and any other type of listening experience from senior staff writer Lucas DiBlasi.

By Lucas DiBlasi, Senior Staff Writer

It’s a rare 95-minute album that doesn’t feel like it has more than a few seconds of filler—but “Miles: From an Interlude Called Life” — “Miles” for short — by duo Blu & Exile is interesting nearly to the last sample and syllable.

West Coast rapper Blu is on point from start to finish — his authentic, highly rhythmic flow, near-genius wordplay and incredible ability to tell a story feature on every song. The other half of the duo — the producer Exile — lays down fantastic beats and intriguing samples for Blu to rap over. Additionally, “Miles” features distinct themes that Blu weaves throughout all 20 songs, from never-ending wordplay on his name to spirituality and the apocalypse.

Blu & Exile released their underground classic “Below the Heavens” in 2007 but never broke into the mainstream, even after a well-reviewed sophomore album. After working for a while on a trap album that never came to fruition, the duo teamed up with jazzy, classic hip-hop inspired production for “Miles.” The fact that they aren’t household names can only be attributed to the strange and often cutthroat machine known as the music industry.

The first song on the album, “Blue,” presages the brilliance of the rest, and centers on the word “blue” itself. The song falls into a smooth string synth section with an electronic-sounding beat as Blu begins rapping, spinning the first of dozens of lyrical plays off of his own name. Additionally, the song features one of the best lines on the whole album, “I don’t see the glass half full, I see the whole pitcher.”

Later in the album, blue is used as a metaphor for falling on tough times in “You Ain’t Never Been Blue,” but the theme is most fantastic during the incredible “Roots of Blue.” On it, Blu raps a sweeping history of African Americans going all the way back to the beginning of the existence of humans and following the story thread to the present day. He raps of that lineage leading directly to himself over a beat Exile crafted to evoke African drumming, although fused with a more Western bass snare pattern.

“I’m the son of Ra, the son of Ka, the father of Africa,” Blu raps, and minutes later, “I’m Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie.” “Roots of Blue” is a full nine minutes long, but never feels slow or drawn out — instead, it draws the listener right into its world.

In addition to working with his own moniker (“Pack up the show, black the block, we gotta block out the news / Blackout at shows, no Glock, Black proud and I’m Blu”), another narrative Blu weaves into the album is that of being deeply influenced by jazz musicians. On “All The Blues,” Blu sings two relatively short verses, the first detailing jazz great Miles Davis’ career, and the second drawing lyrical parallels while detailing his own career.

The samples, beats and hooks on the album are also heavily influenced by jazz, as Miles Davis is sampled during the song “Miles Davis,” and elsewhere Ella Fitzgerald and Ornette Coleman, to name a few. Exile is essentially infallible in this album, at least when he’s making the beats (he raps on a few songs, and while not terrible, his choppy flow reminds us why Blu generally handles the rapping). His mix of hard-hitting beats often evocative of classic hip-hop with cut-up samples and space for guests to sing hooks is as important to the album’s effectiveness as Blu’s lyrical genius.

It would be impossible to cover every song on the album, but I would be remiss to not mention “The Feeling” and “Dear Lord,” two of several songs that deal with spirituality and love of music interchangeably. On “The Feeling,” another song that stretches more than seven minutes, Blu raps about how the love of music overrides any troubles he may be having — “I have a huge love for making music to encourage / But now I can’t afford to record no more.”

The joyous beats and background harmony communicate a love of music as deep as Blu professes in his rapping, and the background drops out on the lyric, “the feeling is one of the reasons I’m still living.” Jacinto Rhines reads a poem over the three-minute outro to the song, saying, “Only the feeling of love / makes life divine.”

Then, “Dear Lord,” one of the shorter songs on the album, hits like a train of hope. Blu raps for three minutes about how good life could be if we came together and made the most of our short time on this Earth, rapping, “And everyone knew it was one world that we lived in / We saw ourselves in each other but also knew the difference / So we joined hands in repentance for humanity / And everyone agreed we are a family.”

There were only a couple parts of the album that I could take or leave, like the underwhelming “Bright As Stars” and the strangely boastful rehashing of “Dear Lord” entitled “Spread Sunshine.” Unfortunately, as I said, Exile’s verses weren’t great, and guest Gappy Ranks’ reggae hooks were a little out of left field. However, Aloe Blacc had a nice hook on “African Dream,” which deserves an honorable mention theme-wise for its hopeful parallels to the cutting “The American Dream.”

The album ends with an appropriate highlight in “The End.” Drums crash and crowds chant as the best guest rappers on the album — Dag Savage, Cashus King and ADAD — rap as if the end times are here. Referencing the Book of Revelation and predicting doom — “Last days when a nuclear cloud pours acid rain / From the neocon policies gone insane” — it’s one of the few songs that feels more representative of the doom-inspiring situation in which the album was written.

“Miles” is hopeful in addition to despairing and lyrically wide reaching. Blu’s interwoven themes of hard times, musical inspiration and spirituality draw the listener into his and Exile’s cohesive world. I give “Miles” a strong 8.9/10.

 

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