Living in your head has its merits. It's a surefire way to insulate your sound from the latest fad. Everyone who's ever blazed a trail has stayed at Medulla Motel at some point. Palaceer Lazaro, the mastermind behind Shabazz Palaces, may have moved there permanently.
Shabazz has dropped three short yet thoroughly enjoyable projects in the last two years, none of which can be pinned down to any modern rap signature. Their latest, Black Up, sounds like nothing else out there. Really, when he says "don't compare my beats with his," you'd be wise to save your energy. The tracks eschew traditional songwriting structure. The lyrics don't sound like anything or anyone. And, say, for the sake of argument, you could draw comparisons, Black Up in its entirety resists juxtaposition.
As Lazaro asserts on "Recollections of the wraith," the sound of Palace is "new off the spaceship, dipped in punctuation." What sounds like a new experience, though, is actually a wild experiment in nostalgia. Under the inventive hoods of Black Up are echoes of 90s Afrocentricism. Not exactly new territory for Lazaro, since he helped pioneer Afrocentric surrealism as one third of the highly influential Digable Planets.
The main difference is that Black Up is more esoteric than anything Lazaro, aka Butterfly, made with Digable. There's no hand-holding here. Others give you a map; Shabbazz banks on the fact that you've signed up for this journey because you're brave enough to explore the riddles on your own. That's about the biggest compliment you could offer a music listener.
The whole experience sounds like a tour through dark cosmic alleys on the back of angels. Drums jerk, snares yelp, and "Echo from the hosts that profess infinitum" floats what sounds like the ghost of a tot crying out from the underworld. There's an ethereal feel throughout.
While every song sports a distinct identity, the unwavering tempo maintains a sense of cohesion. The flow is lucid, but the metaphors don't forgive. "Philosophy is coochie," we're told on "Free press and Curl" without further explanation. "Swerve... The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir notwithstanding)" is the closest to a traditional cut on Black Up. Isolate it from the album, though, and it swiftly regains its uniqueness.
The best display of artful ingenuity is on "Endeavors For Never (The last time we spoke you said you were not here. I saw you though)," which is pocked in a cloud of trombone, tuba, dreamcatcher, and what sounds like two bare wires copulating.
Then, there's the hard focus voyage of "yeah you," a cold castigation of "corny niggas." Bass breaks shriek and linger until warped vocals get beamed in from outerspace, at which point spirits of pioneers enter the frame and scold the shallow minds that seemingly defile their hard-fought legacies. "I can't believe we drove this far and this is who you really are?" they bark disapprovingly through their stoic vessel. It's magical.
Shabazz Palaces want listeners to imagine Black Up as a hazy, dreamlike trance stuffed with shadowy voices and creepily thrilling tunes. And because it boasts a widescreen ambience, there's never a mood that this album won't be appropriate for: you can cook, clean, and, if you're creative enough, bob your neck to Black Up. It's a classic example of the best that hip-hop can offer when you're not afraid to collapse the box.Released: June 27, 2011