#99: Digable Planets, Blowout Comb (1994)
How will history remember an album like this? The hip-hop listening community’s approach to music new and old seems increasingly pitched toward an outright rejection of anything that aspires to be “intellectual,” a tag that has been associated with the long-defunct trio Digable Planets from the beginning. There are a bunch of reasons for this--accusations of cultural appropriation, distaste for big words, genuine aesthetic aversion--but the whole business is starting to seem a little silly. The object of anti-intellectual rap polemics, whatever it may have been at first (Immortal Technique?), has now phased out completely, leaving a phantasm onto which we can pin accusations and also about twenty thousand Lil B imitators in its wake.
What I’m trying to say here is that we should all take a second to remember how lucky we are that Blowout Comb
exists. This album--released the same year as Illmatic
and Ready to Die
, remember--is a paragon of “intelligent” rap, funny and weird and catchy and, yes, incredibly smart all at once. It closes the gap between the Five Percenter/black nationalist politics of its creators and their overwhelming urge to get, as “Jettin’” would have it, “funkaaaaay”. To say that members Ladybug Mecca, Butterfly, and Doodlebug “find a balance” between their cerebral and creative urges feels like selling them short; they instead imbricate the two until they are inseparable from each other.
Listen to “Black Ego” and tell me I’m wrong. The lyrics are abstractly centered on the “black ethic” Ladybug calls out her haters for lacking, and presented in a different context I could see the potency of the group’s hip-hop philosophy severely diluted. But the song is presented in this
context, right here: a bass groove that goes six feet deep, an awesome clap sound to limn the rhythmic track, and an absolutely perfect sample drop (“That’s right, baby”) that introduces the chilling whispers of the chorus. These jacked-up tropes of “jazz rap” do not distract from the message of the song but rather render it indelible. At its best, Blowout Comb
is the catchiest piece of propaganda you’ll likely ever hear.
That is only at its best, however, and much as I want to preserve the legacy of this album, it actually suffers from the same issue as the mainstream pop albums it so thoroughly rejects: it’s fairly top-heavy, petering off about halfway through. “Dial 7,” ostensibly the album’s mission statement (“In the year of ‘89 I stole back my black mind”), has a chorus that falls flat on Sarah Webb’s weak guest spot and allows the group’s collective black identity politics to slide into the realm of mere silliness--they are the “creamy spies,” apparently. Things start to slip from there, the production and the raps both relying on unsatisfying gestures toward “coolness” until the excellent closer “For Corners,” which features a beat that impressively prefigures the ultra-chill style of 2000s-era producers like Nujabes and Lone.
That said, even the structural inequities of Blowout Comb
don’t quite diminish the album’s cumulative power as a record that has a message and a method. Whether that message appeals to those who historically benefit from the power structures these three so unerringly rail against might be questioned by lovers and haters alike. Unquestionable, however, is the album’s approach: fresh, funky, and invigorating. Surely our hip-hop history, increasingly filled to the brim with folks making money off their ability to just not care
, has room for an album like this.