Black Up (Sub Pop)
Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces, by design, is a project shrouded (often literally shrouded) in mystery. We do know that the nucleus is ex-Digable Planets MC Ishmael Butler, aka “Butterfly.” Beyond that, we know very little. And so we must rely on their masked live shows and their debut, Black Up, to guide us.
Instead, though, Black Up takes that mystery and puts it on steroids. The album pulls from all corners. Putting together the brain and poetic control of intelligencia rappers like Immortal Technique with the swagger and bravado of Kanye West would be complicated enough. But the tracks that frame Butler’s chameleon flow are twice as schizophrenic and exotic. The samples are choppy and jerky, some coming from ’60s and ’70s soul and jazz and some sounding futuristic, glitchy, and electronic. Now take all that and put it against live percussion (including very compelling use of the kalimba), hip-hop beats, dubstep-style synthetic bass, and intensely psychedelic production. Now we have a mystery, and what should be a mess. Instead, it all works perfectly. It’s impossible to get comfortable listening to Black Up. It is constantly smart and engaging and bizarre. This is beautifully frustrating.
I found myself so absorbed, in fact, that I didn’t really notice that the ending had rushed past, leaving me in silence. I pushed play again, making my way through the leaping, echoing female background vocals and beeping synths, looking for new clues. I don’t expect to get to the bottom of things anytime soon.