The measures by which hip-hop is legitimized — at least in the mass public sphere — are draconian at best, and exclusionary at worst. How edifying it is then, that two groups who fall well outside the bounds of the typified rap prototypes are managing to make large amounts of noise with relatively humble origins and the rare ability to convey unique identities through subtle mystery rather than hyperbolic bombast.
One of those groups is Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, who had a major under/overground hit with last year’s Black Up, an album that was reminiscent of exactly nothing in hip-hop before it. In the wake of a grip of contemplative reviews and year-end Best-Of lists remained the echoes of two women with contributing vocals: Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons, in conjunction known as THEESatisfaction. The group is now labelmates with its spiritual (and musical) kin, Shabazz Palaces, and its debut album on Sub Pop Records, awE naturalE, is an elegant and eclectic dose of hybridized funk, soul, hip-hop and jazz.
Where Black Up traversed the cold margins of low end-focused rap experimentalism, awE naturalE favors warmer regions of synth bounce (“QueenS”), jazz-inflected neo-soul (“Existinct”), and straight-up pop slink (“Sweat”). As on their previous mixtapes (That’s Weird, Snow Motion), THEESatisfaction are responsible for all of their own beats which reflect personalities both off-kilter and undeniably sensual. While awE naturalE isn’t nearly as quirky as the group’s earlier releases it’s far more musically rewarding, well-engineered, and a proper holistic example of who these ladies are.
Cat and Stas find easy harmony together, theorizing on such things as human origins and nature on “Earthseed” and abandoning cognition altogether for the sake of getting lost in the groove on “QueenS.” (A track which, it should be noted, will soon feature a video directed in New York City by the inimitable dream hampton.) Cat edges through these songs with a subtle, smooth voice with Stas providing the sonic counterpoint, performing the majority of the raps in her sharp, pointed flow. Shabazz Palaces’ leading member, Palaceer Lazaro, shows up on two songs: “God” and “Enchantruss.” His appearance about three-quarters of the way through the album, though welcome, feels stark and nearly interruptive because of the absolute feminine energy Cat and Stas generate. When these parties collaborate, we’re reminded not only of the beautiful distinctions between sexes, but of the balanced accord that hip-hop would benefit from if only it could let go of its aforementioned restrictive sentiments.
But music alone doesn’t solve the problems of the world. And the two times that I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing THEESatisfaction, the overarching notion I’ve taken away is that these women are only interested in revealing their inner selves through their art, an ambition that awE naturalE succeeds in. Something can be made of the fact that THEESatisfaction are black women existing in a male dominated genre (an important distinction, to be sure), or that they also happen to be a couple (which goes far in ameliorating the quasi-liberal populace’s thirst for, well, whatever it is that makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside). When you strip away all the theorizing and projecting, though, what you’re left with is the awe-inducing complexity of musical pluralism, a state that THEESatisfaction seems to travel in naturally.