Left-field hip-hop can be divided into two basic types: the heady, experimental half and the heedless, weird-for-the-sake-thereof half (with some wiggle room in between, of course). We’ve seen plenty of the latter lately, with acts like Odd Future and Kreayshawn stirring up hype all throughout the blogosphere, but now a Grammy-winner from the ’90s returns to the scene to show the new kids on the block what that neglected first half is all about.
Meet Shabazz Palaces, the new project from Digable Planets member Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler. Since 2009, Butler has released material for the project and wrapped himself in a shroud of mystery, taking on the alias “Palaceer Lazaro” and eschewing interviews, saying that he prefers his music to speak for itself. As it turns out, that’s exactly what Black Up (his debut LP for the project) does, but it often seems like it’s speaking a foreign language.
Black Up is a record without a time or place, sounding both futuristic and ancient. Butler drops sparse, fragmented beats beneath a web of reverb-dripping vocals and muffled synths, while also leaning on soul tropes (“Recollections Of The Wraith”) and old-world melodies that sound more like they came from a Bedouin camp than from Butler’s Seattle digs (“An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum,” “The King’s New Clothes Were Made By His Own Hands”). Signs of the traditional verse-chorus song structure are nowhere to be found. The album’s 10 songs bob and weave from section to section, skipping back and forth across genre lines and often veering erratically into minute-long coda sections before deciding to wrap up (see “Free Press And Curl,” “Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt)” ).
Black Up is a wild ride, but Butler’s songwriting is not haphazard. To be sure, his laid-black flow channels a vibe similar to the who-cares attitude of those on the opposite side of the left-field hip-hop divide, but don’t let that fool you; his music is weird, but it’s also deliberate. “Catchy, yes, but trendy, no,” Butler describes his music on the opening track. That’s pretty self-aware, but the only reason Shabazz Palaces isn’t part of a trend is that it’s unlikely anyone but Butler could pull this off.