It’s no secret that a sense of swaggering narcissism is as closely linked to hip-hop music as maudlin introspection probably is to rock. Whether or not that axiom holds any water in 2011 is up for debate, but so long as artists like Kanye West and Coldplay continue to make headway on the charts, bravado and earnestness respectively will remain the cited qualifiers of those who endorse one genre and dismiss the other.
Though it’s true that hip-hop’s bluster and opulence have never really been simpatico with indie rock’s ethos of self-sufficient modesty, no one should be startled that the venerable Sub Pop label signed Shabazz Palaces as its premier hip-hop act; the group – essentially the brainchild of Seattle MC Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler – is shrouded in a level of mystery unheard of in these days of social networking. While Ye expeditiously tweets and Jay-Z releases bestselling memoirs, Butler remains clandestine to the point of eschewing formal interviews and even the indispensable Facebook fan page.
Then there’s Sub Pop. Warner Bros. Records might lay claim to 49% of the label’s earnings, but Sub Pop remains for many the face of independent music – a one-time fanzine that would eventually be credited with making Nirvana and the Shins household names. For Butler, who himself is a founding member of the ’90s alternative hip-hop trio Digable Planets, the decision to ink a deal with the Emerald City powerhouse seems entirely judicious. Digable Planets’ jazz-infused sound dialed down the fiery flow and unabated machismo of more commercial artists like Tupac in favor of a witty sophistication espoused by groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Arrested Development.
With his debut LP under the Shabazz Palaces moniker, Butler subverts the hip-hop stereotypes we traditionally assign to hardcore and gangsta rap (misogyny, braggadocio, acerbic wordplay, etc.) and replaces them with fractured grooves, murky atmospheres, a demure flow, and the occasional rootsy sample. There are definitely traces of Butler’s Digable Planets past on Black Up, but the preponderance of squiggling synthesizers, ether-bound vocals, and off-kilter beats render this a far more ominous affair than either of the Planets’ mid-90s releases.
Black Up is best digested as a whole rather than tune by tune. The album denotes a total of 10 tracks, but with Butler’s predilection for transient structures and prog rock approved song titles (Ex: “A Treatease Dedicated to the Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 Que),” the proceedings can feel haphazard if taken in piecemeal. The record eases itself into position with “Free Press and Curl,” a sleek and mechanized mixture of skittering percussion, subterranean bass, and Butler’s ultra-smooth cadence. Featuring such memorable one-liners as “Deception is the truest act” and “Snuck an extra slice of cake,” one quickly gains the impression that covert playfulness is at the core of Butler’s mission.
“An Echo from the Hosts That Profess Infinitum” maintains the clearest tie with the group’s namesake and the Arabian decorum that adorns the album’s packaging, as an incessant sample of ominous children’s chanting immediately calls to mind arid deserts and the sun-baked cities of Islam. Though the track also features some entrancing mallet percussion patterns and a wonderfully uneven beat, it’s Butler’s unexpected megalomania that sticks out most: “I brag / I kill / I boast / I coast / I toast.”
Black Up is a remarkably dense and thrilling listen from start to finish, but it’s the moments in which Butler applies a smooth jazz scrim that the record stands tallest. The introduction of “Are You…Can You…Were You? (Felt)” stands in stark contrast to the nebulous ambience of its predecessors, with movie score strings and dulcet piano chords that are on par with the best work of Flying Lotus. “Endeavors for Never (The Last Time We Spoke You Said You Were Not Here)” evokes the trip-hop of Portishead, as sampled horn riffs and smoky female vocals coalesce with jittery synths and disparate percussion loops.
If Shabazz Palaces had to pick a single on Black Up, it would have to be “Recollections of the Wraith,” a song whose soulful female vocals, dance floor groove, and party propositions (“Clear some space out / so we can space out”) approximate the celebratory vibes of a Lil Wayne song minus the malevolent attitude.
Ishmael Butler has been on the scene for nearly 20 years now, but it’s hard to deny that in an era where hip-hop seems increasingly hackneyed, Black Up’s disjointed beats and opaque ubiquity feel absolutely invigorating. Shabazz Palaces isn’t going to generate the same formidable presence in the game as up-and-comers like Wiz Khalifa or Waka Flocka Flame, but for a genre that tends to prize confrontation and blunt force, the abstraction at the heart of Black Up is downright quixotic.