It’s been five years since the match made below the heavens of Blu and Exile made their stellar debut. At this point their names are synonymous within the underground and are no longer likely to be misspelled on any flyers.  Of course this means the “sophomore album release curse” has been awakened from its slumber, and the trepidation amongst faans has been truly palpable. So how does it fare?

I had initially passed on the unpolished and premature Bandcamp release, like so many calls from that friend who has camera phone recordings of the latest cinema flicks, purely because this was an album I wanted to enjoy in all its glory. Subsequent to a taster from the pre-release EP Maybe One Day, I was happy with my decision.

After an instrumental introduction, the album takes it time ambling into Blu’s first verses on the mellow “Ease Your Mind”; a blend of abstractions and straight-up raps. Fans will be familiar with this winning combo, and while the former may take a few listens to unravel, the latter hit hard on first impact. It’s this effortless wordplay that has led to comparisons over the years to that of Nas, an emcee Blu himself holds in high regard even if Nas wastes no time kicking him out of the club.

But back to Blu’s lyricism… to the delight of those who found it engulfed in No York’s future-proof production, this album is for the most part a much breezier listen.  The down-to-earth, soul-bearing emcee touches on similar topics of love (“Don’t Be Jelly”) and empowerment (“More Out Of Life”), and grows fatigued with existentialism whilst walking us through his ancestry in an exploration of his identity (“The Only One”).  These last two songs, in addition to “A Man”, are amongst Blu’s brightest moments on the album. They’re auditory murals filled with such potent and engaging lyrics that it’d be too reductive to provide quotes. If he perhaps had a jaded perspective on the future on Below The Heavens, his vision has greater clarity on Give Me My Flowers… and it shows in these tracks.

Whilst these power-houses add great acclaim to the album, it’s disappointing to find a noticeable lack of humour throughout; disappointing because I found it to be a strong and charming quality previously. While some tracks are genuinely not appropriate to accommodate it, there are a handful that would likely benefit from it. It’s not that the album is exactly solemn, but it’s definitely more mature.

One of the lighter moments comes on “Good Morning Neighbor”. I never would have thought Mr. Rogers would find himself sampled in the world of Hip-Hop but we’re talking about Exile, the producer who exercised the resourceful DIY ethos of Hip-Hop to the fullest with Radio, if anyone could pull it off right… this is the dude. There isn’t a track I couldn’t recommend production-wise on Give Me My Flowers… I even found myself oblivious to Blu’s presence the first time around on a few tracks (“I Am Jean”, “Don’t Be Jelly”) as I vibed to the beat. There’s a cohesive aesthetic to it all drawing on inspirations of Swing-Jazz and even post-Swing classical pop that’s so prevalent it almost borders on romanticism; and it works superbly. A few tracks side-step this but the overall sound is very orchestral, “Cent From Heaven” being a great example. Featured on the previously mentioned Maybe One Day EP, I barely gave it room to breathe between replays then, and I looked forward to its sweeping string arrangement and whooping horns as the instrumental outro on this album.

It’s great too that all the features bring their A-game (who wouldn’t on a Blu album?), granted there aren’t any brain melting, verse-of-the-year, show stealing moments like Edan on No York’s Ronal Morgan” (Blu would have you believe he only put him on that track because he wanted his rap name). Homeboy Sandman continues to sound like no one else but himself on “The Great Escape”, and singers Black Spade, Jasmine Mitchell and Jimetta Rose make good tracks spectacular with their respective presences.  This is a huge relief given the poor vocalist input seemingly plaguing Hip-Hop albums currently (see Common’s The Dreamer The Believer).

In all, Give Me My Flowers… is simply a great album. It doesn’t try to jump over the bar previously set; instead it attempts a slightly different move and performs just as well.  For fans of the silver screen, I can liken it to a good independent film; by wrapping its messages up in layers and lingering on the sentiments, it lets everything sink in nicely. In tune with the titular connotations, Exile’s production is both joyous and melancholic, and is matched by Blu’s observant lyrics and technically proficient delivery that will continue to inspire upcoming emcee’s as it has done for the last few years. It may take a while to fully bloom amongst the masses, but I think we have a modern great here.

Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them is available now at Fat Beats and iTunes

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