[Album Review/Listen] – Shabazz Palaces – “Black Up”

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The rap scene in the US is slowly waking up. With the immediacy of information sharing over the internet, the decline of conventional album sales, and the fact that anyone with a Macbook can cook up sounds for others to hear, the game is changing. Unfortunately, every MC Tom, Dick, and Harry seem to think that they’re the ones changing the game. Shabazz Palaces, however, are truly pushing the envelope of rap.

Ishmael Butler is what you’d call an “old head” – his rap debut was in Digable Planets and then he moved on to Cherrywine, both underground projects that embraced the musicalities of jazz or funk while hitting the ground with cool-headed hip-hop. Along with percussionist Tendai Maraire, a Zimbabwean import, Butler is laying down tenured observations about love, life, and “corny niggas” over some of the most demented music hip-hop has ever known.

Butler, or Palaceer Lazaro as he’s been known to call himself, spits a mixture of thoughts over these ten tracks that run the gamut from romantic regret, to advice for the impulsive younger generation, to explaining in cryptic phrasing why his swagger is so much more potent than the average braggart. His greying beard is physical proof of what his lyrics clearly demonstrate: he still sounds young, feels young, but the wisdom of his age is undeniable.

For the most part, this project is the combination of Butler’s cut-and-paste, stream of consciousness flow and Maraire’s wildly schizophrenic beat construction. There are a couple of guests, although the two have kept quite mum about the other artists who have contributed, an attempt to retain focus on the actual music and not the people making it. You can hear the lyrics of female hip-hop group THEEsatisfaction here and there on the album, and if it’s their sultry scatting as the hook on “Recollections of the Wrath”, they’ve got some serious pipes.

His flow is relentlessly enigmatic, describing his swag like “I push the wave belt for dark blue / Birds lookin’ at me like ‘who are you cat?’ / Hat tilted, off my jewels like stars to them / Every word come out my mouth just sparkles up”. He knows how to break up the confusion though, repeating accessible lyrical choruses such as “Clear some space out, so we can space out” or “If you talkin’ bout it, it’s a show / But if you move about it, it’s a go”. From one line to the next, he switches unforgivingly between describing with strange metaphors the suave manner in which he conducts himself, and earthier topics such as searching for your own true voice or contemplating universal love.

These beats are an amalgamation of all sounds futuristic, funky basslines always booming whether smooth or distorted, vocals trailed by themselves in a snappy delay, synths gabbing back and forth at each other in a hundred different voices and modulations. “Endeavors for Never (the Last Time We Spoke You Were Not Here I Saw You Though)” is a soulful downtempo jam that begins with a warm, jazzy brass sample, a classic sound, then all of a sudden a crass synth line like something from a Flaming Lips song starts to have a conversation with the sample. The percussion would be a basic hip-hop rhythm if it weren’t layered with two and a half other undercurrent-type rhythms, all changing voices and talking over each other in an argumentative round-robin affair.

When “Are You, Can You, Were You (Felt)” diverges into a completely different vibe mid-song, as almost all of the cuts on the album do, there’s a single note sample that begins to bang at syncopated intervals and he says “That’s, that’s, that’s somethin’ fresh.” It’s a totally unnecessary statement – the transition into a related-but-separate sound is so smooth and natural, “fresh” doesn’t quite do it justice. The beat morphs into a modified rhythm using the same drum voices, the single note is a tangent on the two-note call-and-response sampling from the first third of the song. It’s a variation on a theme, executed with an awe-inspiring level of style & ease that might go undetected if it’s playing in the background.

It’s difficult for me to sum up this album concisely, because I’ve hardly heard anything like it before. The details I’ve plucked out are really just pebbles on a beach of the sum total of Shabazz Palaces’ consciousness. The lyrics I’ve picked out are hardly the gems of the album, honestly it’s hard to hear the words properly over the dominating sonical barrage that they rest on. What is important about this album is it’s just plain odd, surprising and futuristic, and when it comes to hipster young cats with flat, shallow raps, Shabazz is going to kill them all. Eat your heart out, Tyler.

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