Category Archives: Shabazz Palaces
Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Ishmael Butler (a.k.a. Palaceer Lazaro) may have filled Black Up with surreal imagery, subtly cutting commentary and pithy insights, but Shabazz Palaces is foremost about music, not words, about Butler and Tendai Maraire’s visionary productions that freely blend styles, live instrumentation and warped samples into something both claustrophobic and humorous. Their follow-up, Lese Majesty, finds them leaning into this side of their personality, crafting a dense, amorphous album of ethereal hip-hop, where Butler’s voice is often used for its sound rather than its content. While he’s still a big presence on Lese Majesty, he’s often relegated to the sidelines, even as the duo head for more quasi-conceptual territory. It’s a strategy that works in spurts. True to form, a lot of the music here is striking and fascinating, adding more electronic and psychedelic elements to Shabazz’ woozy, late-night jazz and R&B. The layered atmospherics of “Forerunner Foray” are indicative of where Butler and Maraire’s heads are at now, with that druggy, fluid flow threading its way throughout the record, from the nitrous blur of “Ishmael” to the similarly fleeting closer “Sonic Myth Map For The Trip Back.” Elsewhere the grinding guitar “Mind Glitch Keytar Theme” charts out new territory, while “They Come In Gold” and the THEESatisfaction-featuring “#Cake” could have easily slipped into Black Up. But it’s “Motion Sickness,” with its sumptuous synth tones and marimba noodling, that’s the best and most substantial track here.
Unsurprisingly, that track is also one of the few to position Butler front and center. And that brings me to the Lese Majesty‘s major flaw: its lack of weight and focus. The 18 tracks here on Lese are ostensibly broken up into seven suites, but it’s impossible to tell just from listening to it—each track bleeds into the next and over half of them clock in at about two minutes or less, meaning nothing sits in one place for long, so the whole album comes across like a shape-shifting DJ set more than a hip-hop record. Normally, this would be fine, but since the productions here are so preoccupied with the wispy, celestial and effects-laden, they sometimes lack a real anchor and can too easily slide right through the listener’s mind. Plus, the short track lengths mean some of the truly transportive instrumentals here, like “Divine Of Form,” barely get going before they disappear into the ether. The beats may be the most compelling thing about Shabazz Palaces, but Butler’s lyrics gave Black Up a heftiness and humanity the alien productions may not have otherwise had, and that’s something simply missing here. Even on the track whose title he lends his name (“Ishmael”), his voice is mostly lost in murky reverb. Fortunately, whenever Butler does get a word in edgewise, the album springs to life, whether it be the unsettling and referential “Solemn Swears,” the playful “#Cake,” or, even something as the “Touch and agree!” refrain in “Noetic Noiromantics.” His voice is otherwise too manipulated to keep tracks like “Colluding Oligarchs” or “Suspicion Of A Shape” from meandering about in their own sonic pool. It’s a disappointment, to be sure, yet even if it doesn’t all hold together, Lese Majesty proves Shabazz Palaces’ restless, creative spirit is as alive as ever, offering its fair share of forward-looking music. In other words, there’s no reason to think that they couldn’t bounce back with something as vital as their debut next time around.
Shabazz Palaces – Black Up
The Odd Future crew may have been the crossover story of underground rap in 2011, but Shabazz Palaces, it seems, have had no qualms with retaining their cult status. Hailing from Seattle, Shabazz Palaces released a pair of EPs without a single mention of who was behind the adventurous, shifting beats and wordplay. But despite the lack of identity, the lack of interviews, the lack of, well, pretty much anything an artist does to get publicity, acclaim followed the group, both among the music press and serious hip-hop fans. As it turns out, though there are other contributors, Shabazz Palaces is essentially the work of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, who was most notably a member of ’90s jazz-rap group Digable Planets. (However, in the world of Shabazz, Butler goes under the pseudonym Palaceer Lazaro.) And without much more hubbub than usual comes their first full-length, Black Up, a complex, enthralling record that makes good on the promise of those earlier EPs.
Upon pressing play—never mind that it’s a rap record—the music takes over, demanding attention with its brooding atmospherics and unpredictable, whip-snap beats. There’s no verse-chorus-verse to be heard here and, aside from some repeated elements, very little discernible structure at all, the music winding whichever way it pleases. There are remnants of Butler’s past work here, but much of this feels fresh, with African tribal drums, dubstep and jazz noodling coexisting harmoniously. For a frame of reference, imagine Company Flow’s sci-fi ambiance and Flying Lotus’ sardine-packed left-field hip-hop filtering through Native Tongues jazz-rap. It’s a dizzying listen, but it never feels indulgent or pretentious, always reeling the listener in rather than keeping you at arm’s length. Listen to how “Are You… Can You… Were You?” sustains its tense rhythm so that a sudden chord change feels revelatory or how “Swerve… The Reeping Of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)”‘s crunching beats are offset by soulful vocals courtesy of THEESatisfaction, a pair of women who also call Seattle home. It’s an inventive, exciting production that references the past but always looks toward the future.
Get a handle on the ever-shifting music and that’s when Black Up really opens up, even if the music achievements here dwarf the lyrical ones. Just as the music has a mind of its own, Butler raps with equal formlessness, rarely repeating a flow once he’s moved on to something else, whether that something is a lengthy rhyme scheme or a call-and-response chant. His words are also (nearly) as dense and dexterous as the music itself. While his wordplay is often humorously surreal, Butler tackles a wide range of serious topics, sort of like a Talib Kweli from outer space. He philosophizes on freedom (“Free Press And Curl”), dissects the corrupting power of commercialization (“Youlogy”), recalls a night of lust (“A Treatease Dedicated To The Avian Airess From North East Nubis”), comments on street wisdom (“Are You… Can You… Were You?”) and meditates on music-making (“The King’s New Clothes Were Made By His Own Hands”), all with equal flair and confidence. Despite some memorable lines and chants, none of Black Up has anything that can be really be considered a “hook,” which makes it much less user-friendly than your average rap album. However, the more time spent with the record, the more it gives back, and anyone with even the slightest interest in the potential of hip-hop wouldn’t think to miss it.