Blu & Exile really knocked it out of the park with this one. As a general rule I tend to be a little unsure when embroiling myself with records that are as gargantuan as “Miles” in their length, however, such only proves that efforts can surpass the ordinary 1 hour mark and still pack a punch. There is undeniably a substantial endeavour into moulding this enormous experience into one that is consistently captivating, as Blu & Exile seem to evince such a broad collection of topical applications and sonic arrangements, respectively. It is still a lot to indulge at once, as it sits at a considerable duration of 1 hour and 35 minutes and consists of 20 tracks, yet, if you’re able to immerse yourself into this ecletic trip and if you’re fit to leave your concerns regarding its runtime behind, you’re about to embark on one of the most elaborate presentations that hip hop had to offer last year.
For a record that is so large perhaps you would automatically expect a comprehensive concept album of cosmic heights, yet, surprisingly, that is not what is suggested on “Miles”. With it, Blu & Exile are not aiming to deliver a mere concept album, they submit something that is rather meticulous and compartmentalized into multiple notions in one single experience, which I would argue warrants, in a way, its prolongation. This release is mainly seperated into two main themes. Firstly, you are granted with the album title, that being “Miles”, and you may find yourself thinking that perhaps this is some sort of inspirational message, possibly Blu & Exile have advanced miles in their careers and that has led to this particular effort, which only happens to be one of their best, yet that is quickly refuted as you delve deeper into the project. Blu is quite evidently settling on display throughout the record that its name is supposed to be one of two things, either a reference to the iconic jazz musician Miles Davis, which is referred to countless times on the effort, or some sort of allusion to his son, which is also named Miles after the legendary figure himself, as revealed by Blu on the track “All The Blues”. Either way, this would make total sense within the record and transition perfectly into the other intertwined concept: there are lots of mentions to influential creators that have shaped up Blu to be the person that he is, namely ones from the rap world, and “Miles” could also be seen as a kind of commemorative moment on the underground’s sound leading up to this point or just a project that Blu took as way to celebrate the predecessors that he so much appreciates. Another possible abstract idea that is most likely camouflaged behind the two focal concepts and is supposed to be interlaced with them is this kind of quirky attempt at splashing the album with tunes that are about colors, particularly the color blue, which is also quite obviously a reference to the rapper’s stage name. You can hear this more blatantly on the opening track “Blue”, in which Blu is not only playing around with clashing meanings of that color but also inundating that same cut with schemes that turn such from something that may look, at first sight, as rather simplistic into a track that is filled to the brim with creative purposes, as Blu introduces a batch of colors into the mix and manages to create it in a way that is rather multi-layered for its mere 2 minute span. This theme continues throughout “Miles” and is mentioned not only through the songwriting but also through the song titles, as Blu highlights ones that are quite vivid, such as “Blue As I Can Be”, “You Ain’t Ever Been Blue”, “Roots Of Blue”, “Requiem Of Blue” and “All The Blues”.
When past these potential conceptual subjects, you are only bestowed with a record that sonically matches its absolutely genius background. Blu is not a rapper that is particularly unusual with his lyricism, voice inflections or deliveries, nor is he disposing anything that lands as too experimental or peculiar, however, he makes up for that so tremendously with his reliability. He’s thoroughly immaculate in his rhyming and specifically shining in a compartment that even the best lyricists lack sometimes, that being focus. He’s not constantly hopping on one song theme and quickly backing out and starting to cover something completely random in the context of the tracks, he’s concentrated, he is sticking to ideas, he is investing in them, he is pursuing their meaning. With that comes a record that is fascinating, covering such a vast array of subject matters and being so topically diverse, whether he is paying homage to Miles Davis, writing tributes to his inspirations, outlining important musicians of african descendance, describing his relationship with music, or more expressly, hip hop, stating his position within the music industry and voicing his prioritization for the quality of music over commercial success, setting forth social commentary regarding ethnicity laced with some touches of his point of view in relation to police brutality, providing history lessons and showing impressive knowledge while doing so or expressing the goals that he still wishes to achieve throughout his life, all of these topics come out at one point or another and they are all absorbed and explored on singular tracks and not chaotically dispersed into a vast variation, as many of his contemporaries would tend to do, even the most praised ones.
It’s not that far-fetched to think that the album title would be a reference to Miles Davis, as even though Blu and him are in completely opposite ends of the spectrum, this is, after all, a jazz rap presentation. Miles Davis has, in one way or another, paved the way for Blu, even if relatively indirectly, and it would only seem right for Blu to show his respects to his favorite jazz musician. And in what way did he do so, essentially bringing the jazz rap subgenre into its utter apex in company of the heedful to detail producer that Exile is. I identify “Miles” as a fundamental celebratory moment on the underground’s output throughout the years and Blu & Exile’s manner of asserting dominance within it, as no other duo or solo act even came remotely close to beating the effort that Blu & Exile proposed with “Miles” in 2020. As a whole, even if I don’t think Blu is as remarkable and as off-center as he could be since he does not divert many facets of his personality much often, “Miles” still disposes the complete set that anyone would expect from a rap album in 2020 that is seeking to imitate the impact of the golden era of hip hop: the rugged scratching that is perfectly assembled by Exile; the extremely varied sampling that appears throughout the work, an ideal example of this parameter would be the track “Blue As I Can Be”, as that one alone exhibits more than ten vocal samples collectively throughout all variations of the hooks; the grimy storytelling that Blu sets forth in the midst of songs that are so rich in references; the exceendingly diverse sonic palette that Exile brought when it came to the instrumentation itself; the steady and slick flows that are nowhere as clunky as in your average boom bap record; the memorable and compound rhyme schemes; the wit that comes with Blu’s lyricism; his sizeable vocabulary; the wide-ranging vocal deliveries that he organizes throughout this work; the manifold and heteregenous feature list that he brings on; Blu’s precise enunciation and the passion in his rhymes… There is so much to draw attention to here, but more than anything, the aspect that hauls the effort to its higher pinnacle is the priority that Blu deposits on his precursors, he is constantly mentioning creators within the hip hop realm, and not only, who have inspired him to proceed with his career and, with that, the work only comes out as one of the most abundant in allusions that I have ever heard. The project is so plentiful in so many departments, yet it does not land as your median boom bap album. Normally, especially from older releases, you’d expect an experience that is quite one-dimensional when it bumps into the vocal performances themselves, yet Blu is attempting to vary your encounters with the work so often outside of that, namely with the substance, the song periods themselves as they can range from an amount that is as trivial as two minutes all the way to nine and, strikingly, with the featured artists, and in this variable more importantly in the choruses, as a lot of the guests that assist him don’t actually provide verses. They supply some dynamism that was so strongly needed in this vein of rap and particularly for a record that is as long-lasting as this one, the rappers who come through with the verses themselves aren’t too unforgettable, however, the singers that make appearances are so crucial on this work, as they collide with some tracks that could’ve potentially gotten relatively redundant within the context of the album’s reach, yielding performances that encompass hooks that invigorate the release and even indicate some reggae, neo-soul and, curiously, R&B influences, the latter specifically comes up on the cut “The American Dream”, in which Blu finds himself of ably incorporating Miguel into it.
A focal point on the record is definitely its closer “The End”, as Blu & Exile don’t simply strive to finish it with just another track in the midst of its 20 and produce one that has this kind of apocalyptic aura surrounding it, a disorganized posse cut in which a crop of rappers that they accomodate contribute with enthralling verses, rapping as if not only was the effort itself about to end, but the world as well. This is yet another demonstration of how much awareness and emphasis was set on the album’s assembly and its details, even the last cut takes it as an opportunity to reveal one complementary impression just before “Miles” concludes.
After all, there are still quite a few obstacles that the project reserves for the listeners amongst its gigantic full-length. As anyone would expect from an effort of this kind, it does not punch consistently throughout all of its tracks. There are a lot more suitable song ideas in nearly any department showcased in the first half of “Miles” and, generally, in its sonic exhibitions, the album hits a bit of a dull point in its middle section, as the instrumentals are not as zappy and as feisty in some of the cuts and Blu & Exile also hit a wall when they propose so many extensive tracks back-to-back. That is to be awaited though, as no album can ever rigorously succeed in its execution, even if it presents ideas that are, on paper, perfectly thought out. It’s only that the major criticism I may have with “Miles” is not something that is as technical as the production being maculate at points or Blu not totally fulfilling his performances to the maximum extent, I think it is certainly important to touch on Blu’s ideologies behind these tunes, it’s sort of frustrating when he’s devoting so much time to weak song ideas, namely on the track “Roots Of Blue”, in which he spends an excessive span of 9 minutes on a cut that probably has some of the frailest purposes of the whole record on display, as it plainly strives to be yet another venture into highlighting a batch of important figures that have passed away, a procedure in which Blu finds himself wandering in plenty of times and, virtually, recycling that same proposition a bit too often. On the other hand, there are tunes on the effort that are as thoughtful and as sharp as “Dear Lord”, such which tries to illustrate what the world should look like in the future, in Blu’s eyes at least, and starts with some thought-provoking commentary on religion, yet Blu seems to contemplate on only giving it a scant 3 minute duration.
For anyone who has ever been interested in hip hop before, this is assuredly worth a listen if you’re willing to embark on this ambiguous and ambitious journey with Blu & Exile. “Miles” does not settle for an elementary street drug tale, uninventive commentary on racism or anything of sorts you would expect from a record of the same vein in 2020, instead it delivers an adventure that is so diversified and covers such a colossal bulk of topics that it manages to warrant its massive span.
Favorite tracks: Blue, When The Gods Meet, True & Livin', Miles Davis, Music Is My Everything, Blue As I Can Be, You Ain't Ever Been Blue, Miles Away, Troubled Water, Requiem Of Blue, To The Fall, But Not Forgotten and The End.
Least favorite tracks: Roots Of Blue.