Shabazz Palaces - Black Up
Record Label: Sub Pop Records
Release Date: June 28, 2011
Without even getting into the music, just think of the images the phrase Shabazz Palaces conjures in your mind. Personally, my first trip to the hip-hop group's website and later EP covers ultimately left one theme imprinted on my mind: the mystic elegance of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. While the only tangible thing connecting their music to that anthology of old is the artwork of earlier releases and the simple palace design on their homepage, that very first impression stuck with me up until the release of their latest full-length album, Black Up.
Black Up is almost unapologetic in its portrayal of the things Shabazz Palaces are best at. Their typical airy production is heavily featured in this latest release, as is their capably bizarre lyricism. Parallels can easily be drawn to the Sacramento based hip-hop group Death Grips. Both groups are shrouded in a veil of mystery and anonymity. Both groups defy typical hip-hop conventions in favor of their own ideologies. Both groups fill the confines of their recordings with an abundance of jarring and outlandish elements. All of these pieces come together to form compositions that the listener dare not sleep on. Within a single blink lie layers of beats and melodies that command attention, rewarding even in their stern demand for respect.
“free press and curl” opens Black Up with soft, echoing claps, eventually erupting into a sonic breakdown that forms the foundation for most of the track. Frontman Ishmael Butler, formerly Butterfly of Brooklyn hip-hop group Digable Planets, is imposing from the first verse to the last without having to raise his voice in any noticeable manner. He winds his way through the topics of lost love and musical production fluidly, applying a message of freedom that's mirrored perfectly in the open-ended production. “free press and curl” introduces a common component of most Shabazz Palaces releases in the way the vocals and background production create tangible sonic landscapes even in the simplest refrains.
The closest Black Up comes to a typical hip-hop arrangement is probably the track “Are you... Can you... Were you? (Felt).” Simple claps and various piano samples make up the basis of the song's production, which works well on a variety of levels without losing the Shabazz sound. Butler is able to catch the beat with his lyrics in a more direct way, an upgrade in synergy that definitely makes “(Felt)” a bit more palatable for casual listeners. Luckily, Butler's flow is on point throughout the whole album, and he never misses a beat even over the most far-fetched and experimental production. In a world where mainstream lyricists find it hard to keep up with the simplest of musical accompaniment, Butler and Shabazz as a whole are to be commended for thinking outside of the box without losing a bit of composure in both their lyrical delivery and formation.
Jazz influences creep through Black Up's nooks and crannies with a smooth gentleness that's easily missed but definitely appreciated. “Endeavors for Never (The last time we spoke you said you were not here. I saw you though.)” opens with a repetitive horn loop that's soon complemented by an appropriate drum roll and futuristic sound effects. The lyricism is sparse, comprised mostly of beautifully delivered sung lyrics from a female vocalist. “Recollections of the wraith” is also carried by short vocal samples, and predominately features Butler's competent delivery. “Clear some space out so we can space out,” speaks volumes on both the song's mellow message and the equally chill musical arrangements found therein. While they're easy to miss at times, Black Up's influences are less eccentric than the final product and provide an easy starting point for new listener's to latch onto as they journey through the album's unusual scenery.
“An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum,” an atmospheric track that's carried by a disconcerting vocal howl, is Black Up's greatest highlight. Xylophone instrumentation and simplistic drum compositions provide the perfect backdrop for the intense lyricism. On an album full of unique musical accompaniment, “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” is the best representation of both the group's main draw and the steps they have taken to evolve their already fantastic sound.
Atmospheric. Innovative. Avant-garde. All of these words and more are perfectly apt descriptions of Shabazz Palaces and their latest full-length album, Black Up. Although they take up residence in Seattle, these brilliant hip-hop minds conjure fairy tale images of flying carpets and lavish palaces like only they can. They bring to the game their own brand of mystery and illusion, using both basic and elaborate musical pieces as the basis for their ethereal arrangements. Mind-blowing and catchy, Black Up is an album too progressive to pass up. Get on this as soon as possible.