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DIGABLE PLANETS' “BLACK EGO”

 

By Mtume ya Salaam of kalamu.com

 

Friday, May 16, 2008.

 

You only get one shot at first love. No matter who or what you encounter later, no matter how your tastes change, your first remains your first. My first love was hip-hop and with each passing day, it’s getting harder for me to remember why. The hip-hop I fell in love with was brash, didactic, furious and funny. Say what you want about the state of modern hip-hop, most of my description still applies.

 

The thing is, it doesn’t apply to me anymore. I’m beginning my third decade of listening to hip-hop—though less and less lately — and I realize now that I’m listening for something that is rarely there. What I’m looking and listening for is something that increasingly defines my relationships, feelings and beliefs - something that shapes my taste in food, movies, music and books. Something that is difficult to describe, but easy to recognize. What I’m listening for is subtlety.

 

I looked up ‘subtle’ in my thesaurus and found words like: ‘attenuated,’ ‘delicate,’ ‘ethereal,’ ‘faint,’ ‘illusive,’ ‘implied,’  ‘indirect,’ ‘indistinct,’ ‘inferred,’ ‘sophisticated,’ ‘suggestive’ and ‘understated.’ There are hip-hop songs that exemplify these adjectives; Outkast’s “Growing Old,” GZA’s “Beneath The Surface” and Mos Def’s “Climb” are only three of the many that come to mind. But of the 1,000 or so hip-hop albums in my collection, only one is expressive of the subtlety I’ve been listening for lately.

 

Blowout Comb is Digable Planets’ second - and to date - last album. Their first album, Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Sound And Space), sold over 500,000 copies, primarily due to the crossover success of the lead single and video Rebirth Of Slick. Reachin’ is good in the same way that many good hip-hop albums are: it’s didactic and funny, brash here and there, though not particularly furious.

 

   

 

Blowout Comb is something else entirely. The style is murky, the tone is muted and even at their angriest, the three MCs maintain the same mellow mood. Songs begin at their own leisure and end on a whim. Grooves and riffs repeat so often and for so long that you’ll think your CD player has gone haywire. For some of the compositions, the Planets rely on samples, for others they use only live instrumentation, but throughout there is a sameness which makes it difficult to distinguish one song from the next. (This difficulty may be efficiently resolved by the listener’s intentional lack of effort—in other words, don’t bother).

 

Lyrically, Blowout Comb may have offended, or more likely, confused the Planets’ then-sizable pop audience. Most hipsters who grooved along to Rebirth Of Slick and Nickel Bags have no idea who Geronimo Pratt, George Jackson, Mark Essex or Leonard Peltier are, let alone why the Planets insist on mentioning their names in every other tune. Then again, it’s possible to dig Blowout without understanding a single word of English. In the tradition of Bob Marley’s Kaya, Miles Davis’ Filles De Kilimanjaro or the entire Cesaria Evora catalog, Blowout Comb is as much a single extended mood piece as it is a collection of individual songs.

 

All of the above said, consider yourself warned – this album doesn’t give up the goods easily. The first time I heard it—maybe even the first few times I heard it—I was underwhelmed. Not that I considered it bad—the music didn’t leave a strong enough impression to say even that. But I kept listening. Do yourself a solid and give Blowout Comb time to sink in.

 

Eventually it may become for you what it is now for me: a sixty-minute tone poem affirming the ephemeral beauty of a hip-hop band that came and went far too quickly. And, given that it has yet to be certified gold, Blowout Comb may also be the best hip-hop album you’ve never heard.

 

 

Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.

 

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