Two years ago…
An unsolicited email from a stranger. An exchange of contact information. The arrival of a mysterious package containing two enigmatic CD’s, the contents of which were bafflingly abstruse then, and continue to be now. This is one story, in brief, of how Shabazz Palaces came to exist in this writer’s musical conscious. There are other stories, too, but they are immaterial to the individual experience. As Palaceer Lazaro, the lead creative voice of SP says explicitly on Black Up, the group’s debut full-length album: “It’s a feeling.” These are words worth paying attention to. Do you remember how you felt the first time you heard Shabazz Palaces? If so, put all of your questions about the music and perceived answers to the side, for feeling Black Up is really all that matters.
This album’s delivery to the masses has been much different from that of Shabazz’s debut. For one, people knew Black Up was coming. The two previous EP’s, Of Light and the other self-titled, materialized seemingly from thin air, the primary purveyor of the music kept a secret from the listening public. Shrouding his identity proved to be a fruitless task, however, when astute observers recognized the voice on the other end as that of Ishmael Butler, previously known as Butterfly, one third of the ’90s Grammy-winning rap collective Digable Planets, and then later as part of the experimental hip-hop/jazz fusion outfit, Cherrywine. Even after folks caught on to Ishmael’s new act (and moniker), Shabazz’s handlers insisted on not using his real name in articles and interviews. In The Age of Digable, when the exchange of information was still essentially relegated to note-passing (printed newspapers and magazines) and word-of-mouth (remember land lines?), this identity experiment was sustainable. In the cloud of immediate information we exist in today, however, it was merely a fleeting test of listeners’ search button savvy.
No matter. The product being pushed has been mystery enough to power the group’s mythos since its arrival. The music of Shabazz Palaces has sustained a two year swirl of online praise and bewilderment by listeners and critics, ironic when you consider the group’s relative lack of “official” online presence for the majority of that time. That changed significantly, however, when Seattle-based Sub Pop Records signed the act last fall and advanced drops and album street dates for Black Up began to emerge from the influential indie label. A flurry of more in-depth interviews and shows on both American coasts followed. The hype machine did its job building anticipation and here we are today: Black Up is borne into the world.
This record is a collision of ideas. A fusion of sounds you may have heard before in rap’s heyday, in the back room of an underground jazz club, or even on the soundtrack to one of your favorite movies from the ’70s or ’80s. This is a derivation of Public Enemy, John Coltrane and Parliament. And yet it’s explicitly none of those. Through some choreography of mysterious sonic movement, Black Up has come to exist in a musical space separate from the one we inhabit on the day-to-day. The experience of listening is like wandering through one of those deep sea exhibits at the aquarium where you find enigmatic fathom dwellers that the theoretical mind can affirm the existence of but struggles to process completely. Black Up is here, among us, but it is not of us.
On the album we find ten separate tracks but no less than seventeen unique musical movements. Digitally processed wails and hollow bass are interceded by a bare, organic mbira interlude on one composition (“An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum”); a delicate R&B sample builds and gives way to emotive waves of ’80s synth on another (“Are you… Can you… Were you? [Felt]”); and a schizophrenic hail of rhythmic textures and futuristic sound effects assault the ears elsewhere (“A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis [1000 questions, 1 answer]”). Song structure doesn’t follow any explicit trend — the composer is sensing his way through this, creating on the basis of intuition rather than technical expertise. Black Up stays rooted in hip-hop because of the obvious vocal components and the earth-shaking low-end familiar to the genre on songs like “yeah you.” Aside from that, other typifying rap elements like record scratches are absent. The closest thing to a break beat is the tightly-wound kick and slap of “Swerve… the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding),” a danceable track that is uncharacteristic to Shabazz in musical aesthetic but common in ethereal poetics.
The lack of obvious lyrical intention is partner to the right-brained nature of Black Up’s beats. Well-defined allusions to corny rappers and MC prowess on “yeah you” and “Recollections of the wraith” are more obvious than the transient depths of “The King’s new clothes were made by his own hands” and “free press and curl.” Palaceer Lazaro, who is the most prominent voice on the album (though not the only — Sub Pop kin and elemental soulmates Cat and Stasia of THEESatisfaction share vital space on a few songs), deals in space and time travel on the jazz-infused “Endeavors for Never (The last time we spoke you said you were not here. I saw you though.).” Man’s most basic responses to a beautiful woman are described (albeit with a class and depth of understanding much greater than virtually all other male rappers) on “A treatease…” And Palaceer even slyly connects dots between his past and present musical excursions on “Swerve…” (it’s hard to find the Digable link, but it’s in there). A common thread between many tracks is the MC’s use of repetition and subtle iteration to form and evolve the lyrics’ meaning. Near the end of “An echo…” the MC focuses intently on the rumination, “Who do you think you are?” which eventually morphs into “Who do you thank, who you are?” Where repetition in scientific experiments is used to distill contents to a specific result, Palaceer uses lyrical duplication to achieve expansion of thought rather than precipitation of meaning, something reminiscent of the old adage, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” All of this is filtered through an Afrocentric lens, with a subtle nod toward Black militancy but not one nearly as overt as the likes of Dead Prez or even early Public Enemy. Shabazz seems more interested in engaging the listener in a shared and unique musical experience and somehow achieves transcendence of obvious conflict through that medium.
Black Up only lasts a shade over thirty six minutes, but resonates for much longer. Just as quickly as it arrives, it disappears, leaving you grasping at its apparitions. It’s becoming cliche to say things like, “This is the best hip-hop album of 2011,” but in this case similar hyperbolic phrases often applied to lesser music are appropriate. There likely won’t be another contender for the accolade, not that that matters anyway. Shabazz Palaces doesn’t tread in the concrete, the definitive, or even the time-defined. “It’s a feeling” only knows the unpredictable shift of movement that is truly free.