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Carmen García Durazo: Beats, Rhymes, and Shabazz

December 7, 2011

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A Seattle duo’s enigmatic contribution to 2011’s hip hop sound.

By Carmen García Durazo

Shabazz-Palaces-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr.

Black Up opens quietly. Through the buzzing, tinny fog emerges a cocky male voice, spitting image after image (“juicy lips/watch ’em glow”), before uniting his rhymes with the bravado so typical of hip-hop: “I ain’t showin’ off, I just showed up/Greet my peoples, fill they cup/Transmit heat on pillows plush.” But despite such synth-heavy swagger, listeners should leave any preconceptions of hip-hop at the door: although their bravado may be typical of the genre, Shabazz Palaces’ most recent studio album leaves the sonic terrain of the millennial generation’s bass-and-808-heavy, hook-sweet banger hip-hop far behind.

The sole hip-hop act on Seattle’s Sub-Pop Records (home to Pacific Northwest indie darlings Fleet Foxes, Sleater-Kinney and the Postal Service), Shabazz Palaces emerges from a meticulously constructed guise of mystery. Notoriously interview-shy Grammy-winner Ishmael Butler, one of the self-proclaimed “Palaceers,” is known mainly for his work with jazz-hip-hop fusion outfit Digable Planets. Coverage of his recent efforts with Palaces is conspicuously missing from the blogosphere; on Sub Pop’s site, the group’s bio is similarly evasive:

Forward thinkers but nostalgic for a sparer time when ancient astronomers only recognized five planets. Hip hop. Black light uses electromagnetic radiation to eradicate microorganisms, but shabazz didn’t come to kill a sound, just to shine their own incandescent lamp on this. Hear.

The enigmatic nature of the group’ s self-promotion extends fluidly into the music. Black Up boasts song titles from the heady (“A Treatease Dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 Answer” )) to the pithy (“Yeah You”), and centers its ambling, often spacey production with oft-spacier language (“clear some space out/so we can space out”). But what continues to draw in listeners is the small parcels of pure, comprehensive ethos that emerge from the rubble of warbled background hooks and bass fuzz: “no ironies arise/no predictable surprise… just ancient patient beings/seeing to it to get high/blew off this spaceship/dipped in punctuation.” Butler’s linguistic play is at once tangled and sharp, literary and street:

You’re spiritually blasé

Your revolution’s so passé

And at the end of every day

You’re corny, nigga

Perhaps this is what fuels the clouded ether surrounding Palaces’s album. Although bearing little likeness to the throaty and sticky-deep melodies of Southern rap (Outkast, Big K.R.I.T) or the aggressive, gritty economy of rags-to-riches New York artists (Mobb Deep, Nas, Biggie), Shabazz Palaces demonstrates a devoted reliance—or is it a relied devotion?—on language. Although the group comes at a time when hip-hop has entered a realm of misogyny, mass commercialization, and auto-tune, the roots of the Black Up formula remain true the same formula lauded by a group out of Queens over two decades ago: beats, rhymes, and life. Beneath the spooky synthesizers, heady lyrics and soaring vocal backup, Black Up manages to make a tremendous musical leap forward while still remaining true to hip-hop history.

While the attention to language in Black Up is a tremendous part of its strength, it is indivisible from the shifting, moody atmosphere of its production. Haunting and vast, Butler’s rhymes are able to gleam precisely because of the gritty and purposeful meandering of his beats. Each solid, legible linguistic package that emerges (“I mean it, though/I lean and flow/I gleam and glow”) exists as a sort of guiding light against the dark, complicated, tremendous depth of its musical accompaniment (also produced by Butler). The bass-driven melodies, snare-drum accents and foggy effect-pedal warbling are intentionally complicated, à la Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. This is a planned exercise in getting lost, one significant as much for its own chaotic pulchritude as it is for pointing out the beauty—and peace—of composition.

Eschewing common musical adjectives in favor of metaphor, Sub Pop has likened Black Up to “rich velvet hijabs” and “gold threaded abayas,” as “[l]uxury understood by the modest… fifty thousand years in the making.” This is, in many ways, perhaps the most apt lens through which to view Butler’s project. Set against a richly woven, progressive soundscape, Black Up doesn’t limit itself to hip-hop. Conscious of its medium, Butler’s work is at last a meditation on language’s power to alter, transmogrify, and renew.

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Carmen García Durazo lives in Brooklyn. Follow her @Carmen1Garcia.

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