Experimental hip-hop is one of the more exhilarating forms of musical expression. To see an artist or group push the boundaries of both beats and rapping can result in transcendent results, songs that pass through the boundaries of hip-hop, whatever one considers them to be. And that’s where Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up falls. The Seattle-based group consists of mystery mostly; what is known is that Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler (formerly of Digable Planets) leads the way and that they are signed to SubPop. Their debut album follows two well-received EPs, Of Light and a self-titled release, and it builds strongly on that specific brand of weird and talented.
Enough broad strokes. Getting down to the nitty gritty, Black Up is an unrelenting brand of darkness, while lightening things up with some quirk. It’s a breathtaking endeavor that manages to feel futuristic and familiar at the same time, a time-traveling version of yourself. The beats are booming and glitchy, robotic and warm. Songs move in ways unexpected, never really staying in one place for too long; the album opener “free press and curl” starts with a woozy intro before kicking in the heavy bass while slowly building up a synth background. Oh, and then the last minute slows everything down and drops the vocals to an almost mute level. On the weird tip comes “The King’s new clothes were made by his own hands”, a song that almost defines description. It starts with a looped drum-line, and a very distorted vocal track disorienting you before the clear voice of Butler comes in. It’s all very alien, very foreign. Then the beat minimizes itself about three-quarters of the way through, and we’re left with the voice of the artist, almost a cappella (with the aid of some friends clapping and shouting). It’s a clear-headed moment on an album that assaults your hearing in such a calculated way; it’s a moment when Shabazz Palaces makes sense to even the most unaffected listener.
The two highlights on the album are placed at strategic points: the middle and the end. First, the peak that ushers in the second half of the album: “Endeavors for Never (The last time we spoke you said you were not here. I saw you thought)”. Great name aside, this track mixes a whirling cloud of robotic tics with rhythmic, earthy drums and repeating horns. All the while, guest vocalist Cat Satisfaction (from THEESatisfaction) steals the show from Butler (not an easy feat, mind you) with her sweet sounds. The other high point on an album full of them is the epic finale, “Swerve…The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)”. Start-and-stop throughout, the closer showcases all that shines throughout Black Up: Butler’s delivery is on steroids here, as he spits to the “rappers that’s fake, make no mistake, you we are dissing”. Just when you think you’ve got the track figured out, the chorus comes in, female-led and filled with a double-bass pound that would make Nicki Minaj blush.
It’s rare that an album has both gifted rapping and top-notch production, and even rarer still that it manages all of that on a small budget. This isn’t a major label debut, overwrought with studio sheen. No, Black Up succeeds because it’s the real deal, the culmination of a talented artist’s efforts (with the help of some well-picked collaborators). Shabazz Palaces may be shrouded in an aura of mystery but what does not escape the listener is that this is one hell of an album.
Written by Luis Paez-Pumar