Shabazz Palaces - "Black Up"
Label: Sub Pop
Release Date: June 28th, 2011
Hip-hop is currently defined by context and not content. Looking at two of the most talked about hip-hop albums of the last two years – Tyler, The Creator’s “Goblin” and Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” – a listener couldn’t help avoiding the outside context surrounding the album before it even came out. Hell, both albums are about the artists’ reaction to the conceptions and misconceptions of them as people, role models, and rappers. One the biggest online music publications dedicated paragraph after paragraph to West’s Twitter account in their review of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” While at SXSW this year, the conversation surrounding Odd Future’s live show wasn’t about the presentation of their music, but rather, how “crazy” they are, or which shows they cut short because the crowd wasn’t going “crazy” enough. Context isn’t new with hip-hop. Eminem was that white rapper who could actually rap, 50 Cent was the guy who survived being shot eight times, and so on. The current message is if you want to reach the top of hip-hop, be vain, be controversial, start “beefs,” and work just as hard or even harder creating conversation pieces outside the music as within it.
The only context needed for Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces is that Palaceer Lazaro (Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler) was in the wonderful jazz-based rap group Digable Planets. While this is basic background, even this context is not necessary when pressing play on Shabazz Palaces’ “Black Up.” What’s fascinating is that Lazaro understands what I’m talking about in the first paragraph above better than anyone. Looking at an interview with Lazaro with the context king Pitchfork:
Lazaro initially declined Pitchfork's interview request, replying that he'd prefer to read a writer's take on Shabazz Palaces' music rather than offer his own answers. He won't name any of the other people involved in the project. He wouldn't send us a photograph; instead, he requested that we run the graphic you see above. Shabazz Palaces have no MySpace page, and they self-released two albums into the ether last year on their website. They're a group happy to work in the shadows.
Pitchfork: At first, you were reluctant to do this interview. Why do you prefer not to do interviews?
Palaceer Lazaro: We all feel, that this new era, this contentual era -- where content drives information -- is not interesting. It's not unique. None of the questions that are usually asked are very revealing. And also, it's difficult to really represent something as ethereal as what goes on, what becomes the music you make, and then try represent that in that Q&A form. We find that it's always more interesting when people, if they like your music, just go off on their own thing, just say what they think, instead of asking us about it. We've been leaving it up to writers and people that listen to the music, blogs and shit, to say whatever they want to say about it.
I know what you wise guys are thinking. This whole review has been context. But that’s exactly the point. “Black Up” is an album that explores the problems of context and constantly makes the point that the only thing important in music and life is the actual product – not what surrounds it. On the last track of the album, “Swerve…” the lyrics read: “If you talk about it, it’s for show…if you move about it, it’s a go.” Simply put: actions speak louder than words. Shabazz Palaces are next to zero on self-promotion and creating context, but the content on “Black Up” speaks for itself in a big way.
After your first spin of “Black Up”, take all your impressions, thoughts, and judgments and throw them in the trash. It takes multiple listens to sift through the layers and layers of tones, influences, and lyrical content. The songs on this album are constantly shifting and developing over the two to six minute time span of each track. To simply listen to snippets of each track and shuffle along to gauge the album would be to miss half an album’s worth of new sounds. Synths, marimbas, African thumb pianos, and countless other surprising instruments surface all throughout “Black Up” but never result as an interruption or distraction from the original concept of the track. Every detail on “Black Up” seems to be meticulously thought on and manipulated to its greatest effect.
The familiar sounds on “Black Up” are particularly shocking and satisfying. The last thirty seconds of the opening track “Free Press and Cruel” display a synth line that could easily be mistaken for one of James Murphy’s creations. “Endeavors For Never” mixes a horn section that could be found in a 50s cop film with a burping synth line that is reminiscent of the same synth sounds found on The Flaming Lips track “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots pt 2.” The repetitious beat on “The Kings New Clothes” sounds like a creation from The Books. “Black Up” is a bit of everything in music, and the biggest feat is that somehow Shabazz Palaces made all these brilliant details work as building blocks to something bigger, and in the end, the album feels like a singular thought.
It seems like a bit of a cop out for a music critic to say, “Just listen to the album – it speaks for itself.” It’s true. The only problem is that I’m not the only one who is saying it. On the track “Are You…Can You…Were You” a particularly striking lyric is present. “I can’t explain it with words, I have to do it.” While everyone else in the world of hip-hop is concerned with self-declarations of prominence, Shabazz Palaces would rather you listen to their music and judge the album for yourself than manufacture impressions of outside noise. “Black Up” speaks loudly for itself, and in my opinion it’s one of the most interesting, daring, intellectual, and overall pleasing hip-hop records of the last decade. But I have a feeling that Shabazz Palaces wouldn’t want you to care about what I think. Instead, I think they’d want you to listen to their record and judge for yourself.