Beats & Rhymes: Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up

Every other week, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Shabazz Palaces: Black UpShabazz PalacesBlack Up (Sub Pop, 5/31/11)

Shabazz Palaces: “An Echo From The Hosts That Process Infinitum”

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Don’t bother looking up Shabazz Palaces on Google. Its official website is almost bereft of information, promotional photos are nonexistent, and interviews are scarce. In an Internet age when stars can be made through YouTube views, Shabazz Palaces seems to have gamed the system; its heavy blog buzz is, ironically, at least partially due to its spare Web presence.

Shabazz Palaces ringleader Palaceer Lazaro isn’t a new player on the hip-hop scene, however. He is better known as Ishmael Butler, who is, in turn, better known as Butterfly of Digable Planets. But don’t expect to hear smooth, jazz-infused rap, like Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That),” from Lazaro’s new outfit, Shabazz Palaces. After two acclaimed EPs, the band is poised to release its first full-length, Black Up, a discordant rap album if ever there was one.

The opener, “Free Press and Curl,” assaults the listener with relentlessly repetitive bass blasts. Melodic flourishes arise occasionally, but mostly the production is nothing but bursts of low-end buzz. Make no mistake: Black Up is a record that rewards listeners who have invested in quality woofers.  Lazaro’s rapping is mixed low, making it difficult to decipher exactly what he’s saying, and his flow and the rhythm of the production don’t seem to sync up.  It all makes for a thoroughly dissonant experience, exactly the kind that Shabazz Palaces wants the listener to have.

Lazaro raps, “I run on feelings, fuck your facts / Deception is the truest act,” and the sentiment is clear in the production’s reverberating, echoing loops of unnatural sounds. Shabazz Palaces goes one step further by having “Free Press and Curl” rapidly switch tempo, beat, melody, and mood about two-thirds through. An unaware listener would think the record had moved on to the second track. This kind of seismic shift mid-song happens a few more times throughout the record, keeping the listener constantly on the alert.

But the record isn’t all avant-rap experimentation. Strong melodies, consistent beats, and female vocalists make appearances, such as on “Recollections of the Wraith” and “Endeavors for Never.” The contrast between the clear, melodic female vocalists and the vast majority of the record’s music with Lazaro’s tinny-sounding, low-mixed rapping is refreshing, and breaks up a possibly monotonous listen.

More so than most rap albums in recent memory, Black Up provides musical experimentation. Songs could switch up at any moment. Instrumentation from track to track can be vastly different. Lazaro could be rapping with clarity and coherence only to become unintelligible the next track. The first half of “Youlogy” is a head-spinning adventure into an unpredictable morass of bass and undecipherable vocals, as layers upon layers of synthesized noise are thrust onto the listener, along with vocal tracks manipulated to reduce their clarity. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure, but to someone looking for something unusual out of his or her hip hop, Black Up can’t be overlooked.

Shabazz Palaces’ mission, after all, is to create music intentionally out of the ordinary and shake up the genre. Many criticize rap for being a stale genre, but as Lazaro says on “Youlogy,” “Nothing’s gonna stop it if it’s bound to turn a profit.” Shabazz Palaces has made a compelling, unusual record of noisy experimentation, even despite Lazaro/Butler’s familiarity with the more popular rap world. It’s that kind of willingness to do what might not succeed that can move a genre forward. Though Black Up might repel some listeners with its segments of non-musical noise loops, those looking for hip hop to delve deeper will find it irresistible. Lazaro might believe, as he says on “Recollections of the Wraith,” that this album represents the “dilemma of this bitch-ass, cliché rap getting solved.” While it’s hard to say whether one record can accomplish that, Black Up certainly seems like a step away from stagnation, and that’s never a bad thing.

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