Shabazz Palaces

Black Up

(Sub Pop; 2011)

By Chet Betz | 27 June 2011

As members of humanity, we’re all doing our shit absolutely alone yet sort of together, right? More on that later.

Shabazz Palaces is the brain-child of Ishmael Butler, former Digable Planets rapper (I’m not kidding), and sort of semi-officially includes percussionist Tendai Maraire, engineer Erik Blood, and the members of Seattle’s premier underground sing-rap duo, THEESatisfaction. “Sort of semi-officially” because Butler obviously has a thing for being cryptic. After a couple nice EPs we now have the arrival on Sub Pop of Shabazz Palaces’ debut LP—ten tracks total, a brevity born of formidable wit. If rap can so often be non-sequitur Shabazz Palaces take that quality and amplify it, transform it from egotistical byproduct into methodology, then ruthlessly self-edit in order to find concision, to create ambiguity, and to let moments breathe.

But the great thing is that it’s not an intellectual exercise; the third track on Black Up is one of the best testaments I’ve heard yet to hip-hop as an intuitive medium, Butler stating “It’s a feeling / It’s a feeling / It’s a feeling” with a single-chord piano double-strike more than backing him up. I don’t know if Butler has ever heard Noah23’s old stuff but it feels like he has, specifically the dynamic beat-form and free-reign rapping of “The Fall,” the closing track on Noah’s Quicksand (2002). Like on that grand finale the production on Black Up is meticulous but furtive, always pushing forward, often unwilling simply to loop. And Butler’s rapping sounds perfectly at home in this sometimes chaotic environment, kicking it amidst the kinetic verve of his beats—he streams out simple rhyme schemes, punchlines, mantras, and disses, all threaded together by glassy-eyed poetry. On opener “free press and curl,” after a tour-de-force grind of drilling dub bass, twisted cymbal accents, monotone choirs, and assorted glitches, Butler arrives at a soaring proclamation of “I’m free / Shit, you know I’m free / Nigga, I’m free / Yeah, you know I’m free,” before clarifying “Free to chain my will onto the wings of my instinct.” And we can’t stop nodding, feeling it completely, even when the song curls up into a muted coda.

This is just the beginning of the record’s many triumphs; on “An echo from the hosts that process infinitum” I can’t decide what’s iller, the sinister kalimba line that slinks in like some lost piece of production genius from the Hell Hath No Fury (2006) sessions or the fact that right before that the tortured vocal sample central to the song is revealed to be some kid(s) saying “one love, yeah.” This is an aesthetic example but its principles hold true for Butler’s words and purpose; Black Up limns the metaphysics of rap with the effortless grace of a Pusha or Raekwon couplet about coke. “Treatease” may be the genre’s first booty call that’s prepositional, not propositional, Butler trying to find his way into or “all up in” the utopian “there” inhabited by the one he admires, a “there” ubiquitous on the track due to Butler’s obsession. Record centerpiece “Youlogy” arrives at a breakdown moment in its middle where it repeats the question “Do you want it?” before the magic of modern music production takes over and Butler’s voice multiplies then scurries to different corners of the mix to alter the phrasing: “Like…how faaast…do you want it?” Then, ha ha, the track slows down; questions beget questions beget the rap game’s answers, of which there are none.*

The rambling club rap of “Recollections of the wraith,” despite its too cool title, at first seems out of place on this record primarily characterized by spartan cleverness and po-mo, ad-lib word games. There’s an eagerness to please to “Recollections,” though, that comes off as endearing. Perhaps it’s this quality that brought about a discussion on Facebook where Clay Purdom called the track his “absolute shit” and someone commented on the irony that it was the record’s for-the-ladies track. Clay: “But one of the ten best ever.” Viewed in this light, “Recollections” suddenly makes a shitload of sense in its context. It is both an appeasement and a subversion of rap record convention—an appeasement for reasons obvious and a subversion because its inviting central line, “Clear some space out / So we can space out” is also a summation of the record’s core ideology, a declaration of the need for a rave with elbow room, for both community and communal introspection. Life is a maze, Butler posits, so why not sweep its barriers aside and get lost in a daze instead? And I don’t think the daze need be drug-induced.

The music of Black Up is certainly daze-inducing, though, in the most awesome way; I don’t know if it is iconoclastic or iconic now that club jam “Recollections” sports the record’s most dubstep-inspired beat, composed as it is of little more than a dense synth bass stutter and chalky, click-clack snares with a wordless vocal loop gracing the hook. This blotted-ink backdrop and the “clear some space out” line further the focus of Shabazz Palaces’ M.O.; musically, spacy minimalism and Pro Tools maximalism are somehow rendered equivalent, all as Butler runs his rhymes through a fractal rap generator (hmm, “fractal rap,” new niche genre name? Sorry, Irish Times). On Black Up dubstep is preceded—so appropriately not just in terms of this record’s sequencing (the lead vocal by Cat from THEESatisfaction is like a precursor to the siren of “Recollections”) but from a larger genre perspective—by the trip-hop stylings and rhythmic flips of “Endeavors for Never,” which could also be a dead ringer for A) a great new Fly-Lo track with guest vocalist, or B) the best song Portishead-era Portishead never made. This record’s aesthetic influences are far-reaching but all ill; Clay hears echoes of Mobb Deep and El-P, and I agree while also hearing echoes of the record Anti-Pop Consortium would dreamed of making if they had half this much soul and swagger.

And just like its reference points, it may take a while for the truth’s full dawning of how special this record really is. “Yeah you” is initially easy to write off as a straight-up diss track but immediately you have to ingest its beat, a collision of industrial drums and multiple micro-hooks that include Butler’s hooting, a melodic vocoder passage, and the clean finish of a keyboard tone resonating like a church bell tolling at song’s end…tolling for whom? Yeah you, fake rappers. A close listen to Butler’s lyrics reveal him digging deep in figuring out just what it is that bothers him so much about “corny niggas” and what they’re doing to the art form he adores. In fact, he does so with the insightful determination of actual criticism, not just dissing, but he gets to do that as a peer; his incision culminates in the lines “You’re spiritually laissez / Your evolution’s so passe / And at the end of every day / You corny, nigga.” Listening to Butler dissect something like hip-hop corniness with both his tongue in cheek but his mind behind his heart and a mouth ripe with vernacular that’s high-brow yet slangful…it makes me feel kinship, like this record was made specifically for me and people like Clay and Colin and Nool and probably Rollie Pemberton and so on. But not just for us, for anyone that cherishes music that burns bright with intelligence yet brings on the night with indubitable cool.

And, really, Black Up has all the intensity of a political record yet its focus is the politics of music; the more I listen to it the more I feel like it’s saying something about true artistic freedom only ever fully existing when it exists in some sort of oppositional stance. From this angle Black Up becomes a treatise on the counter-cultural pursuit of the American Dream; which, sure, could be the premise of many an underground rap record, but this shit feels so much more essential, so much more “advanced”—to quote guest rapper Stasia’s almost unsettled reaction in her verse to the ever-shifting tectonics of closer “Swerve,” built primarily from an elastic synth line and some “Intergalactic Planetary” zithering. Always chill, Butler asserts lordship over this instability and entropy, his hook saying that “It go out fast / But it come back slow,” an idea that seems to determine the song’s own form.

Thus, it’s a cracked-mirror reflection that Black Up gives of hip-hop, a vision which creates new images to speak to so much that has been left relatively unsaid by rap, truths that we can only really find in distortion and ravaged rhythms. Shabazz Palaces have fashioned a mish-mash sonic portrait of the rap genre’s entire life-cycle, fixated on the state of decay so as to root around in the shit for a seed of rebirth. What Shabazz think that the seed is, well, one clue’s on “The King’s new clothes are made by his own hands,” where Butler talks of a forgotten groove like it’s Paradise Lost at the same time that he repeats that it’s “just another”—this while the beat that plays out underneath is a beauty the likes of which hasn’t been heard in hip-hop since Cadence Weapon’s “Turning On Your Sign” spiraled off into eternity. In its sum “The King’s new clothes” functions as a powerful statement about how fist-clenched possession of one’s artistic identity can create a limitless paradigm, an ode to art unfaltering and relevance that only waxes. Ishmael Butler is almost 42 and he’s just released the rap album of the year.

I haven’t yet played Black Up at a party; I imagine it would turn things slightly weird but still certifiably fly. It’s on headphones, though—that most solitary and inward of listening experiences—that Black Up lives, breathes, festers, haunts the shadows in the party’s corners. Before reviewing it was that last headphone listen (in a darkened room on my Sony MDRs) that put me over the top and guaranteed my undying love. Here Black Up is some biblical shit—clouds roll back, crooked ways get made straight, and revelations abound. Yeah, on headphones Black Up lets you hear the Swiss clockwork and/or atomic absoluteness that can go into communicating something that, like Time, is basic yet essential. The thing about Time is that it can be transcended within its moments, honed in on the details where they say God is; that’s definitely the utopia, the “there,” where Shabazz Palaces and Black Up reside, at least.

Truthfully, it feels like Shabazz Palaces are inextricably lost in the innards of just one glorious sound, one impossibly full note that’s as spontaneous and fertile as jazz, as persistent and luminescent as electronica, as boundless as hip-hop. And under, over, and through it all intones the voice of Butler, a prophet from a Golden Age past, reborn now to remind us of the things we’ll need to cling to in order to remain human in the days and years ahead. Things like a sense of humor, like a noble and free spirit, like our strangest and illest dreams, properly valuing the ephemeral, grasping at wraiths of the eternal, being willing to evolve and dive into the unknown…clinging to things like each other. But by no means is the message straight-up; it’s fractured, coded, a transmission scrambled in order to break through the signal blocks of a cynical era. Black Up speaks a new rap rhetoric, its righteous philosophy translated into simplicity and then blown up by elliptical aesthetic into monumental swag. This language it speaks is pure music to my ears. Am I, are we, alone?

* “Yeah yeah / yeah yeah / No yeah / yeah yeah.”