By Gabe Sherman
For an hour and a half, Blu examines himself on Miles, trying to understand who he is and where he comes from.
On Miles, Blu & Exile have a simple mission: for Blu to tell you where he’s at, where he’s been, and to thank those who have gotten him there. Following an eight-year break since their last full-length release, the duo’s sound may smack of throwback, but time hasn’t sapped any of their potency. Blu’s bars are tight, his verses and wordplay heady and personal, and Ex’s Dilla-influenced beats — chock full of deep-cut samples and jazz — provide the tones to match Blu’s moods. Dedicated to Miles Elijah Barnes (presumably Blu’s son) and named after Miles Davis, Miles is a sprawling, ambitious album. Through 95 minutes and 20 tracks, Blu unpacks his roots, leaving no rough stone unturned, digging deep into issues personal, cultural, and historical.
The opening track, “Blue,” the first of several songs in which Blu gives thanks to influential figures, focuses on the historical importance of the color blue, from “Abraham Lincoln in that navy blue” and “B.B. King and Muddy Waters singing the blues” to “KRS, Snoop, got both coasts chillin’ in the big blue Buick.” On “Roots of Blue,” Blu shouts out everyone from Bobby Seale and Assata Shakur to James Baldwin and Roberta Flack. And on “To the Fall, but Not Forgotten,” he posthumously memorializes the likes of Fidel Castro, Sharon Jones, and Capital Steez.
Another set of songs chronicle Blu’s L.A. upbringing. On “Music Is My Everything” he recalls his reverend stepfather banning secular music in the home; he also talks about his deep ties to West Coast rap, sparked by “memories of Eazy E when I was three/My auntie dated him, my papa would bang him on the way to the beach/Playing me Chronic before the radios rocked it.”
In “Bright as Stars” Blu explores his early years as a rapper. He was drawn by the initial lures of fame (“I picked up a pen and started rapping bout riches/Having dreams about prostituting my image to get bitches”), which was counterbalanced by the change of heart he experienced around the time he linked up with Exile: “when I bumped into Exile, I realized/That it’s about getting respect and not the checks…then I wrote my best songs/Expressing the truth about my adolescence/That’s when blessings start falling from the heavens.” This commitment to integrity, alluded to throughout Miles, has defined Blu’s business decisions. His flirtation with the mainstream ended in the early 2010s when he left the Warner Bros. label soon after signing with them. Since then, he has released only through small independent labels, including Exile’s own Dirty Science Records.
But shunning fame came at a cost. Throughout Miles, Blu alludes to serious personal troubles and financial struggles. On “The Feeling,” he raps, “they robbed me for everything I have…. they took all my equipment and the masters to my records/They took away the biggest part of my child’s investment/Questioned, but no I wasn’t given back a dime/…I’m broke, and my life is on the ropes.” Blu’s honesty here, and on other tracks, is painful and raw.
Despite his trials and tribulations, Blu’s tone remains optimistic. On “Miles Away,” which explores the double meaning of the word Miles (as miles traveled), the hook reflects Blu’s excitement at where he could be headed; “I ain’t got time to waste/Ain’t got time to stay/I’m on the move/Promised Land is a mile away/I be damned if I miss my fate.” “Spread Sunshine” also touches on religious themes. Exile’s guitar sample sparkles and dances, setting the stage for Blu’s raps, which are equal parts conviction and faith: “I will go to the depths of hell and the gates of heaven/And come back from the afterlife just to complete my mission/Spreading sunshine.”
But Blu’s religious belief does not come with cultural or political blinders. On “Blue as I Can Be,” the artist defines himself as “a Black man/Black hand, Black fists clenched, activist.” “The American Dream” serves as a platform for him to both diss the consumer-obsessed culture of America and wish for a better, more generous, country. Over a warm guitar sample, he recalls his adolescent pitfalls: “as a young man, I demanded it all/It’s a house and a car/Plus another house just so I can house this broad.” Later he adds, “I need a brand new shirt, new watch and shoes/For all my brothers and cousins, uncles and nephews.” Blu still has aspirations, but he now approaches them with a cautious, sardonic edge: “And I want all of my albums to go platinum/I wanna stop rapping and start acting, put out movies, uh/And let my kids get into fashion/All I want is the American pie/you know, a big fat slice of that American lie.”
Miles reflects a man who is at odds about his complicated life: optimism and faith clash with the attitudes of someone who has been worn down after almost 40 years of survival. Nowhere is this clearer than on the alternately hopeful and bleak “The End,” a tune that sounds like it would be on the soundtrack for the Rapture. Aided by Dag Savage, Cashus King, and ADAD, as well as Exile, Blu and his collaborators envision the world’s end, an apocalyptic image that builds on current events and past trends. He evokes “people dying from opium, kids starving in Ethiopia” and “slavery lynchings.” But, once the siren-like beat fades, the stirring call to protest that began the song returns. The album fades out to chants of “hell no, we won’t go.”
For an hour and a half, Blu examines himself on Miles, trying to understand who he is and where he comes from. He takes his time, but wastes none of it. This is Blu’s world: complex and tangled but shot through with beauty and yearning. Interweaving ferocity and dexterity, Blu & Exile have come up with a necessary recording — a Blu space that has room for the past, the present, and dreams, light as well as dark, of the future.
Gabriel Sherman is a student and writer from Brookline, MA, currently studying history at Pitzer College.