Though the mainstream success of their song “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” back in 1993 might forever guarantee their inclusion in VH1 shows like One Hit Wonders or Where Are They Now?, Digable Planets were a wickedly creative group. Their style of funk and jazz-based hip-hop was fresh and stylish, while their minds were sharp and imaginative, veering from fantastical images and puzzles to real-life politics and struggles seamlessly. While their debut album Reachin’ (a New Refutation of Time and Space dazzled with newness, for their second (and final) album Blowout Comb the group deepened their sound by bringing it further to the earth via old-school soul/funk and shout-outs to political prisoners. They might be just about forgotten by your average person on the street, but Digable Planets have a place in the hearts of many. The return of Digable Planets MC Ishmael Butler, aka Butterfly, is thus a big event to some, though it’s not even a blip on the radar of most MTV or pop 40 fans these days.
Now based in Seattle instead of NYC and bearing the more sensuous name Cherrywine, Butler’s spent his missing years honing a new sound and persona, which he presents on Cherrywine’s debut album Bright Black. His new image is in step with the “Cool Like Dat” mood, even as his music is pretty far removed from what Digable Planets was up to. Cherrywine style is all about being smooth and elegant. Drinking, dancing, and romancing are what the songs are about, at least on the surface. Butler’s “girl-crazy”, sharply dressed and ready to show you a good time. “I know I’m fine / I just act like it don’t matter,” he sings. He’s a pimp who cares, a fashion plate with secrets. There’s no hint of Digable Planets’ political bent on Bright Black, and as Cherrywine Butler seems less spacebound, less eccentric. Yet the more you listen, the more mysterious the album gets.
On a musical level, Bright Black is on a futuristic R&B tip. Though Digable Planets were never a conventional hip-hop group by any means, with Cherrywine Butler’s coming closer to abandoning hip-hop all together. His vocal style mixes rapping with singing and is usually somewhere between the two. But an even more important shift comes from the fact that there’s no DJ. Instead Butler plays guitar and is joined by other instrumentalists on guitar, bass, and keyboards. Guitar is at the forefront, yet Cherrywine’s by no means a rock band. Here the bass pounds (in a way not too distant from either hip-hop or club music) while the guitars alternatively offer a relaxed funky stroll or travel the spaceways like Funakdelic’s children. The whole affair is drenched in funk and soul grooves yet is also inflected with out-there sonic touches, like intricate electronic beats or a melody played on the keys of a phone.
While musically Bright Black‘s a space trip that melds genres in exciting ways, lyrically things are just as complicated. The album-opener “What I’m Talking” sets a scene where Cherrywine’s the party host, enticing you to drink and celebrate. Yet it’s soon clear that what this party is all about is the act of creating, that “what he’s talking about” is the fact that he’s ready to take listeners in a new direction. “Build a new song / Drive it down your block / Now that’s pimpin’,” he says. What he’s showing off isn’t himself but what you can do with words and sounds, the places you can go.
Most of the songs on Bright Black are on the surface about the sensual pleasures of life, the proverbial wine, women and song. Yet lurking beneath the romance is conflict and confusion, and the cockiness is often tinged with fear and insecurity (though not always; songs go by where the veneer is intact). The relationship portrait “Anchorman Blues” starts with Cherrywine declaring “This song is the truth”, before he kicks off a lengthy litany of instances where he’s lied to his lover or betrayed her. That song’s spiritual cousin “Gracefully” has a laid-back pimp’s strut but the relationship it’s about has just as much distrust and duplicity, with sentiments like “Laugh in the face of the ones you love the most” and “be graceful girl when you go and break my heart”. In another song, he declares “I don’t believe half of the shit I talk,” making you wonder when he’s being authentic and when he’s adopting a persona. The genius of Bright Black lies in the way Cherrywine captures the allure of fashion and style in total, pulling you into a glitzed-out scene, while cutting against that ideal by pointing out the pain and sadness underneath. Cherrywine doesn’t make fun of the “bling bling” lifestyle; check out “Dazzlement”, where he sounds in awe at the players who are “thugged out” and “iced out”. Instead Bright Black is an off-kilter portrait of the glamorous life while captures the shininess of it while exposing the more complicated emotions underneath.
By the album’s end, Cherrywine has become impossible to pin down. The final two songs are musically more eclectic and lyrically even more evasive than the rest of the album. “Bitch Inc.” throws a blissed-out electronic wave over a bawdy, almost club-ready number that seems like a seduction until you hear lines like “stars and stripes, bitch!” which complicate everything. Bright Black ends with a brief stripped-down tune with Cherrywine singing and playing an acoustic guitar. Its a confessional musical format, one suited to being open and honest, but the lyrics still offer no easy-to-summarize message. They’re a mix of cockiness, revelation and mystery, like everything on Bright Black