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Shabazz Palaces - Black Up

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Artist: Shabazz Palaces

Album: Black Up

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Jun. 24, 2011

Since inaugurating the Shabazz Palaces moniker with two 2009 EP’s of electro-tinged hip-hop clatter, former Digable Planets leader Ishmael Butler has reestablished his bona fides, both as a purveyor of alt-leaning hip-hop and as a surprisingly relevant voice in the rapidly mutating beatscape of now. Dramatically switching-up one’s sonic milieu following a protracted silence has its attendant baggage, though, and Shabazz Palaces immediately drew the predictable "dude-from-Digable Planets-goes-artsy" summary-judgments from the critical community.

And perhaps that’s a fair enough snap-assessment of those EPs. Following the upright-bass-and-beret coffeehouse jazzisms of Digable Planets and the only-vaguely-darker, neosoul-ish sexual leanings of Butler’s early aughts Cherrywine project, the first two Shabazz Palaces releases were most immediately striking not as a successful case of late-career-identity-transformation (which they assuredly are), but for the hip hop niche that serial genre-traveler Butler seemed to have settled on, or perhaps stumbled into: the future-obsessed, dystopian variant (call it avant-rap if you must) that first emerged as a distinct stylistic pose in the late ’90s. Exemplified by the Company Flow/Def Jux axis, Anti-Pop Consortium, Dälek, and more recently, groups like Death Grips and Food For Animals (who, in the interest of full disclosure, release music on this writer’s label), the avant-rap game is ultimately a pretty small club -- it’s pretty ballsy for a boho-leaning, but heretofore fairly-traditional rapper/producer like Butler to start making ostensibly "difficult" music this late in the game.

Though skronk is indeed a good look for him, Black Up, Shabazz Palaces’ first full-length and Sub Pop debut, isn’t exactly that. Volumes have been written on mainstream hip-hop production’s embrace of underground dance-culture sounds and techniques over the past two decades, and it’s no surprise that the brooding beats on Black Up stumble and sway in the now-familiar manner of post-Dilla/Burial "where’s the one?" beatmaking methodology. Though the harsh synth textures and borderline-disjointed edits from the EPs remain, the record as a whole is simultaneously hazier and more distinct: more fine detail in the cavernous reverb, more impact with every tumbling, hypercompressed stack of drum samples. At its best, Butler’s combination of current, post-chillwave sample-smearing techniques and dub-dread ambience seems to strike a particular stoned-seasickness vibe that’s roughly the aesthetic midpoint between current Brainfeeder producers (particularly The Gaslamp Killer) and any of the aforementioned noise-rap reference points.

Riding a stream of sparse, nasal bass-synth stabs, opener "Free Press And Curl" starts with the sort of lopsided swing and skittering hi-hat programming that experimentally-inclined beat-music listeners pretty much expect in 2011. Nothing too shocking here, but things weird-out quickly: abrupt, stuttered digital abrasions flare up, as if illustrating Butler’s lyrical instruction ("don’t compare my beat to his"), while a chorus of queasy, pitch-shifted R&B vocal samples slither over Butler’s mantra-like refrain: "I’m free." All this before a sparse melodic bridge and an outro in which bass pulses threaten to swallow the beat’s minimalist electro lurch.

Which is to say that Butler has a ton of ideas, and he wants you to know it from the start. Indeed, Black Up is a virtual compendium of production techniques distilled from an international panoply of beat-informed hip hop subcultures. The distant, swelling textures of "An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum" are perfectly foghorn-like in a way evocative of both Burial and Bristolian trip-hop (particularly prime-era Tricky), while the stretched, looping vocal sample locates the music firmly in the digital now, for better or worse; its brittle, digitally-steeped quality will be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent 30 seconds using the "Warp" function in Ableton Live. Likewsie, the atonal synth squiggles, descending arpeggios, and trashy hi-hats of "A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)" sound like a lower-fidelity, junkshop take on the sorts of synth burble popularized by FlyLo and crew. From a production standpoint, Butler has assembled a quilt of influences that could only be located in the right-here/right-now.

Listening to a vocal hip hop record "for the beats" is anathema to MCs, and it’s patently unfair to Shabazz Palaces to relegate the rapping to the afterthought-bin. Butler is an accomplished MC and, more often than not, his sometimes-workmanlike ruminations on women, food, the hip hop game, and (most significantly) identity are at the very least acceptably amusing, if not particularly memorable -- some of the record’s most indelible lyrics are chanted refrains ("Clear some space out / So we can space out" on "Recollections Of the Wraith"; "Up or don’t toss it all" on "Free Press and Curl") or goofily enunciated booty calls (imploring "Let me be in there " on "A Treatese..."). Much more than any specific lyrical content, Butler’s approach to vocal treatment/processing/sampling is as integral to the sound of Black Up as the beat programming. The warping, pitch-shifting, smearing and stacking of his and others’ voices creates a dense, claustrophobic morass, used to best effect on "Youlogy" and "Yeah You." Elsewhere, he works conversely, tethering fairly straightforward female lounge-singer stylings to a cut-up samplescape of trumpet, vibraphone, jazz drums and acid-y synth blurts on "Endeavors For Never."

Yet for all the record’s obstinate artiness, Butler’s rapping is at its strongest, and the record at its most memorable, during the moments that reconnect more explicitly with Butler’s poppier inclinations. The booming, rimshot-inflected beat and R&B vocal sample of "Recollections of the Wraith" is more than a little evocative of both Slum Village and Butler’s own past. Similarly, with its crunchy beat and wobble bass, the record’s first single "Swerve...The Reaping Of All That Is Worthwhile," dovetails with mainstream hip hop radio’s current absorption of dubstep/wonky sounds and techniques in a manner that wouldn’t alienate your average Neptunes fan.

Given Butler’s aloof, somewhat confrontational posture during the emergence of Shabazz Palaces, the real accomplishment of Black Up is its tacit acknowledgement of its creator’s pop past. "To yourself you can’t lie," Butler offers on "Are You...Can You...Were You? (Felt)," and it seems likely that he’s addressing himself. For a guy whose jazzbo tendencies were for a long while brazenly off-putting (his tendency toward long-winded slam-poetry song titles being one of the few holdovers at this point), it’s nice to see that Butler has mostly managed to save the baby from the bathwater, scavenging useful detritus from the gamut of his career while crafting something explicitly of-the-now.

By Brad Hurst

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