In this age of oversharing, when you can you know what the guitarist of your favorite grindocre band is eating for lunch, there’s something so antiquated about Shabazz Palaces, the first Sub Pop-signed rap group, declining to even have a MySpace page, and having just a husk of a website. The group’s reluctance to enter the mix, and instead letting the music speak for itself, makes sense on multiple levels, the principle being that the group is spearheaded by Ishmael Butler, he of the late and lamented Digable Planets, the Native Tongues-affiliated boho rap crew responsible for the transcendent Blowout Comb. If Butler were to enter the fray of blogosphere interviews, he’d surely be hit with questions about Digable Planets, questions about why he’s calling himself Palaceer Lazaro, questions about what the music of Shabazz Palaces actually means.
And that would be a real tragedy, because Shabazz Palaces make music that dares listeners to unpack it. The music ends up being as much of a mystery as the people behind it. On 2009's two mini-LPs (Of Light and Shabazz Palaces), Butler and his unnamed contributors played with traditional expectations of hip-hop songs, namely that they would have linear bars, choruses, or beats that sound like they could be rapped over. On their first full-length, Black Up, the experiments come to fruition, forming an impressionistic album full of hardly there beats, vocals that run from stoned-out, confrontational, to confessional and songs with random stops and starts. In terms of deconstructing hip-hop, oblique lyricism, and sheer originality, there’s Shabazz Palaces, and there’s everyone else.
Like the couplet-length song titles that are even more obtuse than normal song titles (Example: “A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)”), there’s not much to pick out, lyrics-wise here. Butler is more interested in creating a mood, with only lyrical scraps for listeners to feast on. “Clear some space out, so we can space out,” Butlers says on “Recollections of the wraith,” coming as close to a mission statement as possible here. That’s also as close to a “chorus” as Black Up gets.
But it’s in the small details that Black Up establishes its superiority: There could be a rap masters class on the impressionistic verse about a funeral on “free press and curl,” and the first flush of attraction on “A treatese…”. The tough talk in the second verse of “Recollections of the wraith” proves Butler could out-rap anyone if that’s what he was interested in, while “The King’s new clothes…” is a song about the rush of knowing you made a good beat. Deconstructing what’s being said here is half of the fun: What Butler wants you take away from Black Up is probably never going to be said.
Sonically, the only precursors for Black Up are releases from the Anticon label. But while Anticon groups usually rely on electronic sketches to create a unique hip-hop experience, Black Up is the melding of multiple forms, and ultimately sounds organic and machined, a mixture of the natural and the artificial. Jazz-hop (“Endeavors for Never…”) bumps up against John Cage-like minimalism (“Recollections of the wraith”), while a deconstruction of drum and bass (“A treatese dedicated to the Avian Airess…”) follows the most traditional “hip-hop” song here (“Are you…Can you…”) and the best argument against the necessity of all of Witch House (“An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum”). There are brief appearances of African music (“The King’s new clothes were made by his own hands”), and some drugged-out stoner rap (“Youlogy”) too. In the end, the constant shifts in style and tone mirror Butler’s dedication to making the music speak for him.
Black Up is the most transcendent, forward leaning, future dictating, engrossing, and all around masterful hip-hop album out this year. Goblin might have caught more hype, but it’s Black Up that most feels like it’s changing the paradigm that is hip-hop. It reaffirms hip-hop as a vital art form, capable of being entirely unique in a way it is hasn’t seemed in years. There are no “bangers” here, no songs earmarked for Hot 97, no guest spots from Rick Ross; just the vital deconstruction of rap music into a creation that is Shabazz Palaces’ inimitable vision. If there’s been a better album, hip-hop or not, out this year, I haven’t heard it.
Before embarking on his critically lauded career as Shabazz Palaces, Ishmael Butler was long known as one-third (and eventually one-half) of Digable Planets. But aside from some reunion tours, the trio-turned-duo's output stalled after the release of 1994's Blowout Comb. As such, the members of Digable Planets sought work elsewhere, striking out on their own for solo careers.
Butler would go on to form a short-lived blues-influenced hip-hop act, Cherrywine, and even tried his hand at acting. Following those stints, he adopted the name Shabazz Palaces, which is the name of his group, and released a pair of EPs, Of Light and Shabazz Palaces, in 2009. These projects weren't just praised for their experimental, left-field production and lyricism. They landed him a deal with Sub Pop, the label that would release Palaces' full-length debut, Black Up. The 10-track album was produced by Knife Knights.plcrs.