Blu & Exile’s Below The Heavens vs. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Which Is Better?
One year ago, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: who is the greatest MC of all time? “Finding The GOAT MC” lasted between September 2014 and May 2015, engaging millions of readers and ultimately producing its winner, as determined by hundreds of thousands of voters. Now, “Finding The GOAT” returns to ask a new question: what is the greatest of all time Hip-Hop album?
“Finding The GOAT Album” will consider 120 albums from three individual eras (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. You and your vote will decide which album goes forward, and which one leaves the conversation. While there will no doubt be conversation between family and friends (virtual and real), only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click.
Blu and Kendrick Lamar are contemporaries (and collaborators). These are two Los Angeles, California MCs who were keenly aware of the city’s Hip-Hop contributions, but saw beyond the Gangsta Rap, locs, and lowriders. With Jazz, Soul, and poetry as influential as G-Funk, these artists have both made highly impactful albums. Regardless of what label or machine they were part of, each act made their art seemingly devoid of industry pressures. For Blu (with producer Exile), 2007’s Below The Heavens was a debut LP that compacted pain, purpose, and passion all in one place. Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 #1 album To Pimp A Butterfly spoke to racism, self-identity, and perseverance. Although these albums are on wildly different scales of recognition, they have a lot of artistry in common. As one work has been around long enough to go out of print and re-release, the other is less than one year old. On this stage, they go head-to-head to establish which is more high-powered (click one then click “vote”).
Below The Heavens by Blu & Exile
In the mid-2000s, Blu was a steadfast MC in the Los Angeles, California underground. Earning his stripes the old fashioned way i.e. performing, Johnson Barnes garnered interest from Suge Knight, Interscope Records, and others. However, the preacher’s son refused to compromise his narrative. Teaming with local producer Exile, Blu found a guy at the boards whose name had made its way onto albums by Mobb Deep, Jurassic 5, and Kardinal Offishall. In 2006, the pair plugged away at a laissez-faire independent album known as Below The Heavens. If there was interest in Blu in his unsigned days, the Sound In Color album, and its honesty, vulnerability, and swagger opened the party. At a time when CD sales were in decline, Blu & Exile’s independent album went fast out of print due to rapid demand. Major labels again took interest in the blunted MC known for speaking bluntly, and the producer who sampled fearlessly. Below The Heavens gave afterlife to the perceived end of the Underground Hip-Hop glory years.
“Blu Collar Worker” portrayed the career of a hungry, indie MC in the era of the deflating infrastructure. Even in rhyming about Hip-Hop, Blu always seemed to be speaking to females, and intimate relationships. “Greater Love” was another example of these pillow conversations, as even in describing his desires, Blu apologized for his transgressions. In Below The Heavens, spirituality was very much at play. The closing title tracks (split into two parts) looked at God, mortality, and the finite time on earth. As Blu was justifying his beatnik worldview, he explained the bigger forces at play. “Cold Hearted” assessed pain, domestic abuse, and nurture-vs.-nature. Although he made it seem effortless at times, Blu made every single word count. As he did it, Exile surgically cut up and layered samples, bringing in Miguel for the ultimate melodic complement. Blu required very little to stand out. In a year when Kanye West, 50 Cent, and T.I. were using big sounds and bigger theatrics to gain attention, Johnson Barnes called back to Mos Def a decade earlier. He let his bars not only tell his story, but serve as his greatest calling card. Exile, the low-profile partner, would prove to make a special connection with Blu, not found on his well-heeled releases to follow. Rather than just talking about the state of the art, Blu endured through venting, admitting his own problems, and extracting the soul in everyday life. Below The Heavens hangs high.
Album Number: 1 (as group)
Released: July 17, 2007
Label: Sound In Color
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): N/A
Song Guests: Miguel, Aloe Blacc, Ta’Raach
Song Producers: (self)
To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar followed up his platinum major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city in the most atypical way. 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly was not a concept album. Rather, it was conceptualized around the medium of albums. In a year where streaming platforms would officially become the consumptive means to music, Kendrick Duckworth cast a light on his album’s sums, not its parts. That sum was an evocative work that dealt with uplifting messages to the oppressed, assertions for self-love, and poetic odes to the female reproductive organs. Between G.K.M.C. and T.P.A.B., Kendrick Lamar shocked the industry with his “Control” verse. For an MC known for his kind, competitive spirit, none of that was at play on his second album with Aftermath/Interscope. This time, Lamar aimed to make a statement for the times. Informed by Tupac Shakur, The Isley Brothers, and Parliament-Funkadelic, Kendrick scratched the zeitgeist of the Black American male experience of the mid-2010s. While those seeking more “Swimming Pools” dips may have been left sweaty, this dense listen almost immediately proved its weighty worth in the counter-culture, while the mainstream leaned in for a closer listen.
“Alright” is the triumphant centerpiece of T.P.A.B. With Pharrell on hand for the track, the song meshed a rally cry with Trap and Jazz. Arguably the most significant MC in present-day Hip-Hop still found a way to stand with the underdogs, and offer hope, courage, and assurance. The song would organically become a soundtrack staple to the Black Lives Matter movement. Album closer “Mortal Man” measured the heart of the people. Whether the lyrics applied to loyalty, Rap careers, or daily stakes, Kendrick Lamar checked in with his audience for their commitment. Symbolically, the song closed with an edited conversation between Kendrick and Tupac, who once shared the same treacherous South Central skyline as the MC. “The Blacker The Berry” spoke bluntly about the images of Black men in America. Unrestrained in his writing and his delivery, Kendrick Lamar not only spoke to oppressors, but to himself for hypocrisy surrounding violence. Breakout single “i” was one of the pillars of 2010s cool, reminding the world that love starts at home, with oneself. In order to be alright, and see walls for what they could be, it was about giving yourself the mental nutrition that social institutions would not. Surrounding Kendrick’s dense message, the TDE in-house producers and close affiliates offered complex, dynamic, but understated production. The music queued to the influences (DJ Quik, P-Funk, The Roots), but never once stepped out in front of the message. In the era of the beat, the MC in business with Dr. Dre demanded to put words first. While Dre, Pete Rock, Robert Glasper and others played minor roles in the album’s sound and recording, those features were lost on most. With a clear mind and a pure heart, Kendrick Lamar did not seem to intend to make a classic album. However, in sorting out his perception of the world (and its perception of him), K-Dot stapled his art on the consciousness of 2015, and beyond.
Album Number: 4
Released: March 15, 2015
Label: Top Dawg/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #1
Song Guests: Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Rapsody, Bilal, George Clinton, Ronald Isley, Thundercat, Anna Wise, James Fauntleroy, Dr. Dre, Whitney Alford, Lalah Hathaway, Josef Leimberg, Robert Sput Searight, Rogét Chahayed, Robert Glasper, Brandon Owens, Ab-Soul, Craig Brockman, Marlon Williams, Darlene Tibbs, Wesley Singerman, Matt Schaeffer, Dave Free, Ash Riser, Larrance Dopson, Talkbox Monte, Pete Rock, Javonte, Paul Cartwright, Gabriel Noel, Pedro Castro, Sam Barsh, Kamasi Washington, Gregory Moore, SZA, Adam Turchin, Terrace Martin, Jessica Vielmas, Pharrell, Candace Wakefield, Dion Friley, Preston Harris, Wyann Vaughn, Chris Smith, Keith Askey, Kendall Lewis, Edwin Orellana, Junius Bervine, Devon Downing, Ambrose Akinmusire
Song Producers: Sounwave, Pharrell, Terrace Martin, Taz Arnold, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Flippa, Rahki, Knxledge, Tae Beast, Lovedragon, The Antydote, Boi-1da, KOZ
So what’s the better album? Make sure you vote above.