Album Review: Shabazz Palaces' 'Black Up'
Two decades ago, Ishmael Butler flapped his wings as Butterfly, one-third of the seminal ’90s New York hip-hop trio Digable Planets. Claiming coolness as its birthright and Miles Davis and two Herbies (Hancock & Mann) as elemental building blocks, its vision was smooth and subterranean: rap as ice-cold modal jazz.
Two years ago, Butler reemerged as Palaceer Lazaro, enigmatic frontman for Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, a Sub Pop-signed duo dedicated to deconstruction and dismantling “all that dying and dust.” If Digable Planets felt like a primordial daydream, the Palaces approach genre like Eric Dolphy or Albert Ayler did — free associative, raw and radical.
Following a pair of brilliant EPs, Shabazz attacks with “Black Up.” Their song titles are like McSweeney’s meet Maurice Sendak (“An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum”; “Swerve... the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding).” Lyrics dismantle everything from corporate corruption to scatterbrained swag solipsists. In particular, they fixate on light frequencies ranging across an electromagnetic spectrum.
Indeed, their sound skips across a similarly wide gulf: Think Def Jux Records’ sound meets dubstep with African hand drums, skittering xylophones, and enough bass to suffocate the asthmatic. So dense and dissonant that, like Sun Ra’s strangest space odysseys, some critics have even complained, “This isn’t music.”
But it is, and like the Tribe of Shabazz from whom they take their name, Shabazz Palaces is the sound of survival, inured against extreme climate, adamantine as diamond clusters, and levitative as any insect.
Four stars (Out of four)