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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Album review: The Last Poets return with urgent new album addressing US race relations

The US trio are back with their first album in 20 years

The Last Poets at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Gary Doak / Alamy Live News
The Last Poets at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Gary Doak / Alamy Live News

If you scan through hip-hop’s family tree, the genre’s flair for dexterous word play is partly rooted in the work of The Last Poets.

Throughout the 1970s, the New York collective, alongside fellow urban poet Gil Scott-Heron, released a thrilling body of work expressing their anger and concern at the plight of the African American communities.

But even when covering such heavy and dense topics, the group knew that the backing tracks needed to be absorbing enough for the caustic words to pierce through. Hence, their records were always laced with evocative instrumentation, from the tribal percussion of 1970’s self-titled debut album to the deliciously funky sounds of 1977’s Delights of the Garden.

With their soul-searching work passed on to the next generation of introspective rappers such as Talib Kweli and Common, The Lost Poets legacy has seemingly already been sealed.

But it’s the present fraught race relations in the US that compelled the trio to come together for a solid new record, Understand What Black Is, their first in 20 years.

Over 10 tracks, Abiodun Oyewole and Umar bin Hassan brood over the state of US societal dysfunction, with third member Baba Donn Babatunde on percussion.

Providing the light reggae and dub vibes throughout the album are a pair of British producers: Nostalgia 77 and Prince Fatty. They manage to keep the sounds rich and earthy as the group deliver their signature evocative wordplay.

On the title track, The Lost Poets urge us to reappraise what being dark-skinned signifies: “Understand what black is, it is not a colour, it is the basis of all colours. It is not a complexion. It is a reflection.”

Over squalling horns harking back to the work of Argentine American composer Lalo Schifrin, She Is is a jazzy paean to Africa’s rich heritage of tribes and royalty, while Rain of Terror recalls the fire of old, as the men question the US’s role on the world stage.

Smooth and cogent, the album acts as a welcome return for these grizzled urban heroes; but its timely nature and strong production means it will also be an introduction to the lyrical maestros for some new fans.

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Understand What Black Is

The Last Poets

(Studio Rockers)

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