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Bright Black

Bright Black Album Cover

Release Date: 05.20.03
Record label: Dcide Records
Genre(s): Rap, Hip-Hop, R&B, etc.


Quite Bright
by: terry sawyer

Digable Planets were one of the coolest acts ever to briefly grace the world of hip hop. Both of the group’s albums inaugurated their own peerless musical space, whether it was the intelligently be-bopped Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) or the full on radicalized funk press of their swan song, Blowout Comb, Digable Planets made hip hop with a profound sense of musical ancestry and ambition.

It’s not surprising that Ishmael Butler’s (aka Butterfly) latest project does not just pick up where Digable Planets left off, something that would certainly have been admirable, noteworthy, and easy to love in its own right. Cherrywine sounds a lot less like a hip-hop record than it does a blissed out P-Funk odyssey of open-ended artistry. It has more in common with Hendrix than Dre. I’ll admit, it took me several listens (and maybe a few bong hits) to absorb the incredibly loose constructions of the songs. There are no inane repetitions to get traction with, though you might get a word repeated once or a vocal climb that substitutes for rhyme. Butler’s lyrics come and go as they please and, like some sort of subterranean, acid trip jazz combo, the song structures burst open and tear off on their own at a moment’s notice. An improvisationally drugged out atmosphere pervades the album, but not in a crutched way, more in the way they play fast and free with form.

Butler lays down verse with unpredictable rhythmic agility, slinking over basslines like he’s in no hurry or too stoned to reel in his lumbering stream of consciousness. This works best on “Gracefully” which he begins in a logy spoken word aside, like he’s telling you a secret, and then builds into an incredible track of poetic and seductive reversals. I could be wrong (I’m getting this from the title alone) but “Anchorman’s Blues” seems like a song written from the point of view of a cheating lover that’s supposed to be really about the way the Media treats us like a lying temptress. Either way, it’s makes for a cheeky cut of unleashed funk. “Dazzlement” is the most up-tempo track, shuffling in over wah-wah guitar and well-slinged sarcasm about the bling-bling thug life.

One of the most interesting aspects of this album is the naturalistic, almost screenplay-like, structure of the lyrics. “See for Miles,” built on top of tweeting keyboards and spooky piano, takes the form of a conversation about someone finding the girl of their dreams and the announcement that the cocaine is coming to the party. Previous Digable Planet outings could sometimes suffocate the listener with a politics that practically bludgeoned. Cherrywine subverts with subtlety, allowing you to take a lyric like “We never had, so we splurge when we get/the blues haunt/the fortunate flaunt/so the big life taunts” take on double meanings and political understandings that have to be dug for to be illuminated.

This is not an instantaneously consumable record. Bright Black is an album with a meticulously spacious amount of details. It accrues enjoyment the way that some incredibly difficult pieces of music can, those symphonic funk epics where the listening relationship is more reciprocal, where you have to bring something of the table yourself to take something away. This is not the spoon-fed bumper stickers of Jay-Z, it’s colossal and it’s a gorgeously wide aim with no particular target. Frankly, this is just what the world of hip hop needs: a refresher course in the genre’s limitlessness. 22-Jul-2003 8:45 AM