When Blu & Exile dropped Below the Heavens in 2007, the seminal album descended on a substance-starved hip-hop nation like a gift from the gods. The seamless chemistry of Exile’s soulful sample-based production and the poetic poignance of Blu’s multisyllabic lyricism instantly took jaded heads back to an era when dynamic duos routinely amazed–while making internet era fans feel as though they were experiencing the birth of a classic all their own. It wasn’t hard to imagine the tandem eventually taking a place alongside the likes of Guru & Premier or Pete Rock & CL Smooth in the pantheon of MC/Producer teams that simply made magic.
Things haven’t exactly panned out as imagined, with both artists choosing to expand their individual brands instead of doubling down on the buzz of their collaborative debut. In the subsequent years, Blu has established himself as a message board fixture, releasing material at a staggering clip, but failing to deliver a project of the vision or consistency that elevated BTH. Exile has continued to refine his production chops, most notably on a sonically daring solo album and Fashawn’s inspired Boy Meets World (a watershed in its own right), but has yet to catch fire outside of the same underground circles that have always embraced him.
Five years after they first shook the earth, Blu and Exile have re-united, and if the title of their long awaited follow-up project is any indication, they are out to collect the props that have largely eluded them. Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them is a solid hip-hop album, and but not the magnum opus for which the table was set, or the personal statement that was Below the Heavens.
Where their debut was fueled by propulsive drums and soulful samples, Flowers is a decidedly mellower, jazzier affair. Exile’s beats approach J. Dilla levels of intricacy and nuance, while Blu’s always dexterous flow weaves in and out of the pockets and crevices with ease. The Black Spade feature “Maybe One Day” is so hypnotic, thanks to stuttered percussion and understated keys, that it will probably take multiple listens for the sophistication of Blu’s rhyme schemes to fully sink in. The reflective “O Heaven” floats atop a filtered choral sample, as Blu unfurls a stream-of-conscious meditation on the passage of time and love. Similarly, “More Out of Life” is vintage Blu, with bittersweet personal memories giving way to piercing vignettes from a world weighed down with regrets. It’s a space that Blu has owned over the past five years. It’s also a space that Flowers fails to leave, making it ultimately a predictable, if well rendered affair.
It was the specificity of Blu’s memories and musings that made BTH breath and bleed. But, after five years of mining pain, doubt and regret, it often feels like all that is left for Flowers is somber generality. Even his delivery, once colored with subtle intensity and punctuated with inflection, now too often deflates into gloomy monotone, sometimes fading into the background on less structured tracks like “Seasons” and “Money.” Perhaps tellingly, Flowers tends to soar highest when there are co-pilots in the cockpit. The unbridled energy of Fashawn and Johaz accentuate the playful bounce of “Growing Pains,” and even seem to inspire Blu to deliver one of his most lively flows. Likewise, Blu opens the tense “The Great Escape” with a whimsical sing-song flow, setting the stage for the mic vandalism of Homeboy Sandman and ADAD.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to hold artists to the standards of a legacy shaping classic. Perhaps it isn’t realistic not to. Enjoyment of Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them will probably be directly correlated to the listener’s ability to separate it from Below the Heavens. That in itself is a testament to the talent of the two artists involved, who have more than any flowers that come their way.
– Jeff Harvey