From pitchfork.com: “Shabazz Palaces emerged two years ago with an air of carefully cultivated mystery: Two EPs appeared, identified only by the Arabic patches on their covers. The music was some of the most exploratory hip-hop of the year, an enticing batch of fragmented raps and woozy, disorienting beats. You could find precedents for this stuff– the amorphous wanderings ofcLOUDDEAD, the jazz rap of the early 1990s– but these EPs were largely on some sui generis shit: Nothing else out there sounded quite like Shabazz Palaces.
The Shabazz Palaces and Of Light EPs featured an MC going by the name Palaceer Lazaro, and he introduced an alternately glittering and gritty urban noir taking place in the unlikely setting of Seattle. That the reedy yet resonant voice behind Palaceer’s raps was readily identifiable as Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of downtempo rap collective Digable Planets(and, later, Cherrywine) did little to lift the shroud. Butler declined interviews and dodged photographers, and when he did speak, his answers were as evasive as his raps were richly, if obliquely, illustrative.
His reticence was an attempt to let the music speak for itself and avoid comparisons to his previous acts (adding some alluring intrigue didn’t hurt). And some comparisons are inevitable: The EPs continued the darkening trend that occurred in between Digable’s unlikely breakthrough Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and thornier follow-up Blowout Comb, and which developed further with the sinister funk of Cherrywine. But if Shabazz Palaces’ first phase was about building a mystique, their Sub Pop debut is the product of opening up. Black Up lets some sunlight in, breathes fresh air, and finds Butler returning to an occasionally lighter flow, the most unburdened he’s sounded since the world first heard him. Which is not to say that these are easy, uncomplicated songs. Butler continues to eschew traditional verse-chorus structures in favor of tracks that unpredictably diverge and then pool into lone, evocative words or concise chants. And if some of Butler’s rhymes and sonics are breezier than before, his tracks still retain their moody, hard-thudding, and sometimes psychedelic atmospheres.
Most of these tracks end somewhere very different from where they begin. “Free Press and Curl” opens the album with a down but defiant rap (“Musically and bitch-wise, too/ I lost the best beat that I had”) delivered over stuttering crunching drums and bass vibrations. Three minutes in, the tempo slows into a kind of galley song, a murky drift over which Butler fires off a couple of final, biblically imperative (“thou shalt…”) verses. “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” (the album’s track titles throughout are fascinating) begins as a playground chant stretched and smeared into a queasy loop over muffled kick and grainy snare. But then after a minute, everything drops out for a spooky mbira solo from Shabazz sideman and percussionist Tendai Maraire. “Youlogy” starts as a busy, druggy swirl– a heaving bass, a synth wobbling in one ear, voices cut and pasted, echoing asymmetrically, everything dropping out on the word “high” in “to get you HIGH”– and then breaks for some jazz trumpet and snippets of stylized dialogue, before proceeding as an altogether different, relatively cleared-out, bass-and-drum track.
That Shabazz Palaces’ songs follow such inscrutable routes makes it all the more striking when they coalesce around a repeated word or phrase. “Free Press” builds up to the rousing chant, “You know I’m free!” over a ghosted gospel chorus. On “Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt)”, Butler exclaims, over ringing piano notes, wafting strings, and one great tinfoil handclap that swings in just half a beat later than expected, “It’s a feeling!” “Recollections of the Wraith” glides in on two of the album’s most effortless choruses, Butler first proclaiming/promising, “Tonight!” over a swooning, oohing female vocal, and then requesting, “Clear some space out/ So we can space out.” That last one is about as involved as any chorus here gets– these are hooks boiled down to their most essential.
Even forays into traditional structure end up typically idiosyncratic. The album’s lone loverman song comes out a treatise– well, actually, “A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)”. It’s birds and bees rendered as bop poetry, working up to an insistently smooth come-on line that turns from astral to anatomical with the addition of one little two-letter word: “I want to be there/ Let me be in there.” The record’s dis track, “yeah you”, snarls and bites but it also laments and ends as a breathless, headlong exorcism. All this is both in keeping with Butler’s track record and indicative of his status as a hip-hop elder, an MC with some well-earned gray in his goatee. And it’s deeply refreshing to hear an artist who exudes such depth and consideration.
Still, Butler is hardly yelling the kids off his lawn– in fact, two of Black Up’s best moments come from young guest stars THEESatisfaction, a similarly “afro-eccentric” female duo with whom Shabazz Palaces have been collaborating for much of the past year. Cat Satisfaction lends her rich singing voice to the dusty, repurposed jazz of “Endeavors For Never (The last time we spoke you said you were not here. I saw you though.)”, while partner Thee Stasia raps over the hard, roboticized boom bap of album closer “Swerve… The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)”. That the last sound you hear on the album is one of THEESatisfaction’s voices echoing out into the ether feels like an anointment and a look ahead (news that Sub Pop signed the duo leaked back in February).
For all his recent (relative) forthrightness, Butler is still fascinated by art’s ability to communicate what conversations cannot. “I can’t explain it with words/ I have to do it,” he raps on one song; on another, he delivers one of the album’s catchiest, most motivating maxims: “If you talk about it, it’s a show/ But if you move about it, then it’s a go.” Beyond the “just do it” swooshing of these lines is a meatier paradox: that Butler uses a lyrical form to decry the limitations of words and exalt the meaningfulness of action. In Shabazz Palaces, Butler enacts the union of these opposites– words as action, action into words– and it’s no exaggeration to call this transmutation what it is: magic.”