Sub Pop, 2011
In April, Justin Cook wrote about Shabazz Palaces and the history behind the name and members of the collective. You can view that piece here.
Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire are Shabazz Palaces, the experimental hip-hop duo from Seattle, Washington. When they broke onto the scene releasing a couple of EPs, their disorienting production and wobbling waves of music pushed the exploratory bounds of hip-hop as a whole. Black Up is their golden gem.
Maybe it’s the charring tones that Black Up emulates, or the efficiency behind its attention-grabbing sound, but the production oozes with a certain satisfactory deliverance. “yeah you” pulsates with a whirring bass riff and a maddening variety behind the percussion. Opening track “free press and curl” bounces from ear to ear while incorporating industrial House swerves, and “Youlogy” transitions from a bombarding bass-backed track to a Flying Lotus copy-cat second half punch to the gut. The production behind these songs and Black Up as a whole make Shabazz Palaces approachable, but the success comes from the simple fact that these beats make you pay attention to each immaculate detail.
Lyrically, Black Up is spacey and engaging, further proving the record’s solidarity. “Recollections of the wraith” is stunningly out there as it mixes slant rhymes into variation (“New off the space ship, dipped in punctuation”), and “Endeavors for Never” is a spiritual conquest (“Sneaking in and out of thought/ Leaving emotional trip caught up/ Love the funk, the flare/ I am well aware of the places we’ve been”). The trick to Black Up’s lyrical refrain is that it never at one point cuts you up in detail. Rather, the lyrics lead you into the exploration of your own meanings and imagery of the song itself. “Are you…Can you…Were you?” might explain Shabazz Palaces’ reach perfectly: “My body traveled/ My mind waits behind the music/ My crime bemuses/ Relax inside my shiny blueness.”
Black Up is concrete in tone and it’s mind-opening lyrically. It’s not too chunky nor is it sparse on material, and it’s in this perfect limbo where the genius shines. Shabazz Palaces and their promising take on hip-hop and poetry have pushed the walls of experimentation further, and Black Up is their masterpiece behind it all.
One of the best aspects of hip-hop, and music in general, is that there is no limit to what an artist can create when they have the proper tools at their disposal. Now clearly, music has transformed over time as technological innovations have affected our everyday lives, interests and values. In the instance of music making, the need to create new sounds and styles of music remains. Yes, there is plenty of questionable music out there, most of it found on the AM and FM airwaves. However, what keeps the world of music going are the artists that aren’t completely caught up in the potential of profit and that strive to compose something that is revolutionary. Looking at hip-hop specifically, there are many artists that have done this. In the past five years, the collective known as Shabazz Palaces has had this type of effect on the hip-hop community with their 2011 record, Black Up.
Out of Seattle, Shabazz Palaces consists of Ishmael Butler (of Digable Planets fame) and Tendai “Baba” Maraire. From the outset, Black Up is different in the best kind of way as the beats twist and turn, slow to fast, refusing to follow any sort of traditional style or method. Your head will nod with the intricacy of the rhythms and instrumentation that almost hides the simplicity of snare hits on two and four. It’s as if a lazy river is carrying you down stream in a hazy jungle. Then out of nowhere, the waterfall is there to swallow you up. As the waterfall gets closer and the beat builds there is suddenly a lifeline thrown as the lyrics cut through with undeniable clarity that truly brings the album into focus, making you think long and hard.
On the third track, “Are You…Can You…Were You? (Felt),” Ishmael steps up to the mic and delivers line after line discussing rampant materialism and commercialization in the music industry and society as a whole. For instance, “At a tender age/ We learn to turn the page/ To the screen and stage/ To see who got the glaze/ To hustle up or fade.” With his relaxed flow, it seems that Ishmael has much to say but doesn’t need a lot to say it. The words that Ishmael uses aren’t always the most complex, but the way in which he strings them together; they are some of the most profound.
Shabazz Palaces are an example of how music can be used to create discussion about our social circumstances and push the art of making music forward. Black Up feels different than most hip-hop records, because it is. In this case, different is so, so necessary.
“Recollections of the wraith”
“Are You…Can You…Were You (Felt)”