Review: Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

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Asked by Cherwell earlier this year where he saw himself by the end of 2011, Shabazz Palaces frontman Ishmael Butler replied “…in a palace in the Middle East smoking opium and learning some new skills.” Such a description is not altogether unfitting for the music of Shabazz Palaces’ psychedelic debut, Black Up. The record is the first ever Hip Hop release for Seattle-based indie label Sub Pop, but its experimental leanings make it wholly unclassifiable as conventional ‘Hip Hop’.

For months, Shabazz Palaces was shrouded in mystery, and Butler (formerly known as Butterfly, of reputed 90’s jazz-rap trio Digable Planets) operated solely under the moniker of Palaceer Lazaro, and this enigmatic aesthetic has carried over into Black Up. The singular production (by Tendai Mariaire, credited cryptically as Knife Knights.plcrs) buries Ish’s voice under layers of dark and discordant otherworldly samples, bathing the album’s beats in a brooding, extraterrestrial texture. The familiar creeps in too, as it does in the female soul samples of ‘Recollections of the Wraith’, but their warmth is subverted by the minimal bass thumps underlying Ish’s taunting verses. Sonic influences are hard to pinpoint, but one can hear snatches of dub and funk amidst the ethereal shifts of rhythm and style and the unsettling plinks of the mbira.

Black Up operates on the fringes of Hip Hop, adopting its chief characteristics but also borrowing generously from the sampled collages of experimental electronica and trip hop. The Palaceer tells us himself on closing track ‘Swerve…The Reaping of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)’: “Every sound, we trying to mash and attention. We bung the latest feelings, they just re-rap through the givens. Them are talk first, we are observe and listen.” The wizened MC’s admonishment of his younger colleagues might ring hollow in another context, but given the intrigue and freshness of Black Up, younger rappers might do well to “observe and listen.”

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