The Cool Kids / Shabazz Palaces

Tacklebox / Of Light / Shabazz Palaces

(Self-released / Templar Label Group; 2010 / 2009 / 2009)

By Clayton Purdom | 12 June 2010

If anything, I underrated the Cool Kids’ last mixtape at 73%: Gone Fishing is pound-for-pound one of the most aurally pleasing hip-hop records of the past, say, three years, eschewing a lot of the crispness and snap of the Cool Kids’ proper debut for a gauzy, long-playing sense of cool. It’s not great, but it sounds great, and lazy as a day off spent stoned. Beats fade in and out of each other; raps begin, half-start, tumble over themselves for a giggling mulligan. At seventy minutes it pushed its luck but, over time, validated this sprawl through sheer gregariousness. The title felt non sequitur but may be apt: it’s rap music I’d fucking fish to. I don’t even fish!

So Tacklebox has a lot to live up to, at least to these ears, and lest I speak too soon I’ll merely assert today that it’s good. It seems simultaneously tighter and more low-key than its predecessor, its transitions clear-cut but verses utterly slow-motion. “Freak City,” delightfully, moves at an absolute creep, its verses coming through at a megaphoned whisper, and when they switch up the beat in its final third it gets slower. Coupled with the duo’s increasingly precise diction and cadences, the feel is closer to a screwed and chopped T.I. record than the duo’s previous Rick Rubin/Rakim reference points. As emcees, they’ve got nothing here to win new fans, but old ones will find stupid quantities of ’90s nostalgia, Midwest pride and low-brow disses, all spit at an emotionless monotone.

It is, moreso than its predecessor, take-it-or-leave-it stuff, immensely appealing to people who like their beats upfront and probably immensely un-appealing to people who have issues with the size of their rappers’ jeans. Regardless, it all congeals magnanimously in three cut-and-dry bangers: the slow-bloom fuck-track “Birthdays,” the Native Tongues goofaround “Great Outdoors” and the barbecue rap stunner “Summer Nights.” If these are the cuts shorn from the still-pending When Fish Ride Bicycles long-player, what’s left should be pretty fucking great. Still, the overall triumph of Tacklebox is the same as that of Gone Fishing: it shows the Cool Kids eschewing their early tag as singles artists and solidifying their (yeah) inimitably cool aesthetic with increasing confidence. If it will slowly infect and then become one with my brain, with the weather, with the sweat on my walls, as its predecessor did, all remains to be seen.

Shabazz Palaces are in a position similar to the Cool Kids a few years ago, coming into sudden relevance after emerging from seemingly nowhere—and by nowhere I mean Seattle, Digable Planets, and the family line of weed-head punchline Gonjasufi, whose Twitter feed neatly approximates the feeling of being lobotomized. Thusly, in principle, I get why people might want to avoid Shabazz Palaces, sort of a low-brow inverse of the same reasons high-brow folks want to shirk the Cool Kids. I can concede a disbelief that something so hip and perfect could actually deliver. But then “Kill White T,” the first and best track off Shabazz Palaces’ two EPs, drops from your speakers, and fuck a nebulous hype, that shit sounds like the birth of a new universe. “Kill White T” is sinuous and sinister, full of hooks that emerge from nowhere and recede; it is hip-hop, definitely, but abstracted beyond recognition, vaguely Eastern and zither-y but not even kind of Timbaland-esque. Okay, maybe kind of Timbaland-esque, but only in the capacity that it furthers his sound in a way even he hasn’t managed since Futuresex (2006). It sounds seismic and evil—rumbling, violent and quiet. It’s ill.

Shabazz Palaces are not all that that would lead you to believe—not quite—but the drop-off from “Kill White T” isn’t bad. And these are, after all, EPs—a trial run at worst, a promise at best, and on these terms the records are thrilling. They slide through grime-y reggaeton on the preposterously titled “32 black leaves,” through dubstep wobbles on “100sph”; they fucking barrel through Prefuse-ish trip-hop on “Capital 5,” if that sentence even makes sense. Which it doesn’t. Like the Cool Kids, Shabazz Palaces evince something at their core ice cold and neo-Mobb Deep that can’t be questioned. We know in 2010 that “authenticity” doesn’t exist, though—so what could it be? The answer lies within their commonality. Because for all the Cool Kids’ Animaniacs references and all Shabazz Palaces’ abstruse concern with the celestial, these records end with remarkably similar conclusions. The Cool Kids eschew emceeing finally, some beat skittering to a close against sirens and a nonsensical hook; Shabazz Palaces’ Butterfly, with all the ontological urgency that has defined this small ouevre thus far, asks, “That’s what’s up?” and answers with a mantra-like: “That’s what’s up, that’s what’s up, that’s what’s up,” the beat fading off into nothing. Quiet as can be, both collectives scream, still, promise.