The late Gil Scott Heron famously asserted, “the revolution will not be televised.” Shabazz Palaces‘ first LP Black Up is a revolution in the name of Heron — a gauntlet thrown to challenge our perceptions of hip hop, of music, of ourselves, our lives, the world, the universe. “The revolution will be no re-run, brothers/the revolution will be live,” Heron concluded in his piece, words that align perfectly with this enigmatic Seattle collective. Black Up is an album that daisy-chains the forgotten and often tired sounds of backpack rap, neo-soul, proto-hip hop and regenerates the forms into a radical cosmic treatise on culture, identity, metaphysics, and countless other feelings and impressions. It’s an unpretentious, unconfined hip hop album that illuminates its soul in a brilliant, spiritual fashion and pivots around one of Shabazz Palaces’ central themes: discovering who you are, then being who you are.
And Ishmael Butler has spent the better part of two decades honing his identity. Under his former and seminal 90’s jazz rap group Digable Planets, Butler was “Butterfly”. On the 2004 album Bright Black, he was the ironic rap stereotype “Cherrywine.” In Shabazz Palaces, he is now the lead MC: “Palaceer Lazaro”. As each project came and went, Butler evolved from form to form until landing back in Seattle in 2009 where he flicked out a couple EPs under Shabazz Palaces and was soon picked up by Sub Pop Records. His journey partially informs the work with Shabazz Palaces: a mix between the strength of mainstream MCs and the headiness of the underground scene. Butler’s flow, for the uninitiated, is paced like Q-Tip and confident like Pusha-T. His knowledge and conviction place him easily atop the MC food chain, and his versatility and freedom as Palaceer Lazaro opens up a whole tool chest of lyrical styles, from catchy bons mots (“Swag’s the brand/open the can”), to potent burns dropped on the diss track “yeah you” (“just because you stole some glow/and each and everything’s a show/don’t need to trill on that you know/ you corny, nigga”). Butler’s talent is historical, and a forgone conclusion.
However, the sounds coming from Shabazz Palaces’ camp are far less empirical than Butler’s cred. There’s no real taxonomical equation that balances the style of music on Black Up. Butler’s voice grooves with nonpareil production: ultra low Hz bass, found sound bent beyond recognition, all filtered through processors and effects. Oddly, for all the studio effects on this album, the production offers up the most fresh and organic beats this year. To paint with broad strokes, it’s like extra-planetary funk grounded in the roots of afro-centric soul. On a more fine tip, a track like “Youlogy” packs all the heavy-woofer punches of an Odd Future track for the first half, but two minutes in the song slips into a jazzy footnote or a sparse digression. There’s no standard hook, just a stream of conscious flow that eventually connects the song back to the initial beat at the end. This kind of multi-part, tangential nature to the songs on Black Up make each track hard to pin down, but soon reveal a personality as evocative as the track’s name (e.g. “Endeavors for Never (the last time you spoke you said you were not here. I saw you though.)”)
The parsed and free-flowing nature of the songs require careful listening. Butler doesn’t bracket his songs into soundbites or hooks, nor does he brag or whine about life on the net. He calmly and subtly lays out the score, making him feel at times more like a guru than an MC. “If you talk about it, then it’s a show/but if you move about it, then it’s a go” he suggests in the closing track “Swerve…the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)” ( and see’ta mean about the track titles?). Every word is part of a flowchart that connects Butler’s identity to the beat, the culture, and the universe. “It’s a feeling”, Butler repeats on one of the album’s strongest tracks “Are you….were you… can you…(Felt)”. The whole 35-minute album is just that: a feeling. And that’s something far more risky than shock or megalomania.
Repeatedly, Butler references the sparkle of something: diamonds, dazzling stars, reflecting moonlight. That nocturnal shimmer runs all through the record and like Sun Ra or Albert Ayler or early Coltrane, the album reveals a transcendental cosmic bent. “Just ancient patient beings, see into it you get high” Butler rattles off on the suspended and tripped-out “Recollections of the Wraith”. Seattle’s female rap/soul duo THEESatisfaction‘s inclusion on a couple of tracks offer the purest example of the album reaching for the stars, but the 6th-planet stuff sits shotgun to the humanitarianism that drives the album — the various connections Butler tries to seek. He even tries connecting the opposite sex by reciting a string of forget-me-nots on “A treatise dedicated to the Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions. 1 answer)”. Rarely if ever has Butler under any pseudonym wrote a love poem. If he can step out of his comfort zone and and wax about a lady, it’s not too much to ask for us to meet him half way, right?
Shabazz Palaces is not lead-fisted bedroom rap, it’s a “big movement from below”. It’s not counter culture, it’s a new culture. And Black Up is not the best hip hop album of the year so far, it’s the best album of the year so far. Few artists these days have the wherewithal like Shabazz to assuredly stand in opposition of the mainstream and speak to their own beliefs without coming off as preachy or insufferable. And while Shabazz may take some pages from J-Dilla or early Def Jux records, Black Up is anything but a throw back record — it’s avant futuristic, for the times and ahead of it, and it’s a new beacon for hip hop. Shabazz Palaces is “Palaceer Lazero” is Ishmael Butler – diluted to is purest form then sprinkled with spacedust. You may not understand it, but you don’t have to. It’s not about that. It’s about the feeling. It’s a feeling.