Black Up (Sub Pop)
Shabazz Palaces’ new album, Black Up, reminds us that even though all art builds upon everything that comes before it, it still needs to be mindful of influencing the future. Each year, we see offerings that pay homage to products from a decade or two earlier. Current pop culture is heavily influenced by the 1980s. This is evident in songs like Lady Gaga’s “I Was Born This Way” and J.J. Abrams’s tip of the hat to Steven Spielberg with Super 8. While it is occasionally nice to reflect on where art has been, it is refreshing to see that Shabazz Palaces takes a leap forward into the future of music while staying grounded enough to not have to be labeled the sometimes taboo “experimental.” The tracks from the recent album, Black Up, aren’t really danceable, but rather ones to zone out to and contemplate the fine combination of electronic sounds with smooth poetic flow. Palaceer Lazaro (formerly known as Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler of Digable Planets fame) and his Seattle-based group at various points seem to direct the listener’s experience the album. On the first track, “Free Press and Curl,” one of the lines, “catchy yes, but trendy, no” sets the table for the rest of the album. The hooks are surely addictive, but in an entirely new way, completely different from the homogenized sounds of hip hop’s Top 40.
Shabazz Palaces combines stark, digital sounds cut a millisecond short of expectation with more organic ones, such as a kalimba in “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum” for a composition that blends Trent Reznor’s industrial electronica with a lyrical smoothness similar to Q-tip. Black Up’s laid-back tone continues with “Recollections of the Wraith,” where we’re instructed to “clear some space out, so we can space out.”
Black Up feels like a glimpse into the future of hip hop. Do not be fooled by the short track list. Each of the 10 songs feels like an entire chapter of a well crafted book. Not afraid to change direction within each song, Shabazz Palaces incessantly shakes up the melody and pacing, which feels surprisingly natural and unforced.
Speculation posits that Palaceer Lazaro wants to shy away from his association with Digable Planets, worried that he’d be pigeonholed as an artist from a different decade. Really though, just as Digable Planents was doing something a little different from the rest of the rap and hip-hop world of the early ’90s, Shabazz Palaces is doing so in the 21st century. Black Up feels like the next step for hip-hop; moving away from typical beats, conventions, and stereotypes, returning to the genre’s roots of smoothness and storytelling. Rather than a direct homage to the past, desperately seeking nostalgia, Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up is what hip hop from the ’80s and ’90s has grown up to become, embracing maturity and venturing someplace totally uncharted.