The ever-churning state of media and its need to flutter a constant daisy-chain of updates and ideas across screens at every possible moment has been discussed before. It creates entertainment or advertisement masquerading as news. It dulls the impact of truly vital or important information. It distracts us more than it informs us. In the realm of entertainment, especially in music, it has another impact: the mystery of process fades away. As a band writes and records over a year or two or four, we get updates. Updates from the band’s website, from their Facebook page, from outlets covering the band. It does build an anticipation of sorts, and suggests a connection between band and audience. But it can also feel like everyone involved is buying into building anticipation rather than seeing where a process goes. It can feel, in other words, contrived and unnecessary.
So first and foremost what makes the return of Shabazz Palaces refreshing is the sense that members Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire don’t care much for destinations, or for process as a narrative arc with a beginning and end. They announced one record, seemingly out of nowhere, titled Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star. Then, shortly after, announced a second, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, to be released the same day. The one-sheets for both albums are playfully opaque, hinting at details of the albums’ unifying concept, the story of someone named Quazarz, a “sentient being from somewhere else” sent here to “chronicle and explore as a musical emissary.” It’s hard not to think of Sun Ra’s self-built mythology when you read this, but once you dig into the records it becomes clear that Shabazz Palaces are once again in their own unique orbit.
That orbit has been consistently expanding, moving from a pair of EPs, to the essential debut album Black Up, to the double-LP Lese Majesty, and now two proper stand-alone albums released at the same time. Shabazz Palaces is always blurring the lines between the whole and the mosaic, between the groove and the disruption of that groove, between the unified and the subtly fractured. It’s always hard to hear their records and know where one song ends and the next starts. The shift can be jarring, and yet it almost always works. And even if the borders between songs are tough to spot, the tracks also manage to stand alone outside of the larger narrative.
Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star pushes at some liminal space between the intact and the cracked-up. It starts with a genesis story, “Since C.A.Y.A.,” that introduces the world of Quazarz by looking back on Butler’s musical history in the Northwest. Right away, he cuts into the idea of straight biography — “You got a bio / them things you write about me” — he spits with dismissive disdain. Meanwhile, his voice is awash in metallic tones, melted at the edges, not quite clear. As the song moves on, it feels less like a trip down memory lane and more like getting lost. Butler shifts from place (“Lost in the streets”) to music (“lost in the beat”) to fleeting not-quite-communication (“I can’t even remember my last tweet”) and by the end of the song it’s clear this isn’t the genesis of a character, Quazarz, so much as his confusion and isolation.
The album right away seeks to tear down the fake, the nonsense around the feeling music can evoke, around making connections with others or the space around you. “When Cats Claw” centers on a deadpan refrain where Butler mock-says “That ain’t cool” or “This ain’t cool” following each with an exhausted “Huh?”. On “Parallax” he takes aim at, among other things, fashion (“Fuck Gucci, Louis, Prada / Dolce and Gabbana”), only to explore the path to singular style and individuality on “Fine Ass Hairdresser.” That song brings history back in the same impressionistic way “Since C.A.Y.A.” did, and the effect is another sort of blurring, between a person and the place they call home.
That link, that search, is at the center of the album, and the music itself deepens that search. The haunted soul of “Shine a Light,” the throwback, lean beat of “Eel Dreams,” and the spacious, sci-fi electronics of “That’s How City Life Goes” all feel disconnected from one another. But the more you dig into the album, the more faint ties start to present themselves, the more you get a picture of how Shabazz Palaces sees music, not as a series of siloed genres, but rather as a spectrum of sounds, tied together, ready to be knotted up into various complex compositions. Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star is a curious new entry for the group. It expands the space-age palate of Lese Majesty, but slips in the unique tunefulness of Black Up. And yet it doesn’t quite sound like either, and — maybe unsurprisingly, at this point — it doesn’t sound like any other record you’ll hear this year.
And that includes Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. While it may seem indulgent to release two albums at once, in this case it makes sense. These two records would feel bloated and strange as one patched-together record, and releasing them at the same time creates some interesting sonic and thematic tensions. If there’s a more challenging record out of the two, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines is it. But that’s only because the other record gives us some clear nods to the history of soul and hip-hop. That’s necessary to that album’s story, of the individual and their place in time and culture.
Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines turns from that focus on identity and toward the distractions in the world that keep that identity from finding its place. Shabazz Palaces wants to be “a glitch in their matrix,” and presents the album as the red pill, peeling away the layers of illusion. The album goes hard after our reliance on devices, especially. On “Gorgeous Sleeper Cell,” we are distracted by “swiping all the time.” On “Self-Made Follownaire,” Butler laments that “the fakeness is ridiculous,” talking about the “pomp and circumstance” of religion, using it as another example of an empty culture placating itself. On the hilariously titled “Love in the Time of Kanye,” the narrator confuses getting higher (literally) with transcending. “Where was I?” he asks, only to admit, “On the cliffside up so high / watching all of the waves pass by.” Here, removal from everything becomes its own distraction, its own disconnection. Even music and the performer can be disconnected, as Butler makes clear on “30 Clip Extension,” where “ghost writers” are busy “haunting all the people,” rather than “join[ing] up with them.”
And, in the end, the album is a call to engage with culture, to avoid that disconnection. It suggests a critical relationship with the world around you, not to tear it down but to understand it and your place within it. The music on Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines infuses an uneasiness into this confrontation. “Late Night Phone Calls” skitters and wobbles and hisses along. “Atlaantis” is skeletal, scraped-out, and the lyrics delivered in a monotone grumble. Even “Julian’s Dream (ode to a bad),” which seems straightforward enough pushes its echoing beat on repetitively as the lyrics run down a rabbit hole of metaphorical fruits.
If Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star consistently disrupts our listening, this album draws us into uneasy spaces and keeps us there. It makes for a more harrowing listen, but these albums act as solid foils for one another. Born on a Gangster Star might seem downtrodden and overly self-interested if Quazarz didn’t push back against the culture around him on vs. The Jealous Machines. And the tensions on the second record take on new, fascinating layers as you go back to the perspective laid out on Born on a Gangster Star. The two also clash musically, sometimes echoing one another, sometimes conflicting. But both albums reward repeated listens. Shabazz Palaces are on their own astral plane, and these two daring albums need no preamble of buzz, no discussion of process, no one-sheet bio. These are musical worlds fully built and ready to be lived in, even as they exist — purposefully — outside your comfort zone.
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