Album Review: Shabazz Palaces, Black Up

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Shabazz Palaces 
Black Up
Sub Pop: 2011

“I ain’t show off/I just showed up,” Palaceer Lazaro spits on “Free Press and Curl,” the first jam off Shabazz Palaces’ debut album, Black Up (Sub Pop). Palaceer aka Ishmael Butler, better known as Butterfly, was a member of the early 90’s trioDigable Planets, a group that helped solidify the fusion of jazz and hip-hop. The Planets broke up after two slept-on releases. Butterfly traded in his bohemian pop appeal and retro grooves to form Cherrywine. Their album Bright Black was received by dead silence. Homie must’ve scratched his head, went back to the lab, formed Shabazz and crept out music that gained an underground following. It’s always a revelation to see how artists reinvent themselves.

(from left to right) Lady Bug, Butterfly and Dudlebug: Digable Planets
Shabazz Palaces performing live.
Shabazz Palaces performing live.

Shabazz refused interviews and offered slim information until recently. Palaceer won’t reveal who’s in Shabazz and there’s no credits in the liner notes listing who did what. To spin a story or to put cats in a box, the media keeps saying, “mystery is the new hype.” Guess Death Grip, No ID’s Cocaine 80’s: The Pursuit EP, and the avalanche of hype that Jay-Z and Kanye surfed on for their almost “unleakable” Watch The Throne album proved effective? Shabazz lets their music speak for itself. No Myspace or Facebook page, just a minimal website a profile on Sub Pop (the only hip-hop artist on the label).

Black Up sounds like a classic album from the future. The production is a kin to Anti-Consortium. Some beats go in different directions with unforeseen change ups that don’t echo their beginnings. The vocals zig zag through the percussion like a car racing through traffic. Palaceer’s flows are ramblings or insights disguised as a stream of conscious, but it’s easy to follow, classic clever wordplay. On “Yeah You” the repeating sound of a glock cocking back layers the soundscape. Palaceer’s poetic patterns are similar to Smoothe da Hustler ft. Trigger The Gambler’s classic “Broken Language” until he breaks off into “My hands so flush/ you’ll have to fold/ the played out rhythms that you told/for all the priceless things you sold/…you corny nigga.”

There’s definitely some Digable Planets’ like moments. On Planets’ debut album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)they were asking if “Jimi [Hendrix] would dig us,” assuming he would. On “Recollections of the Wrath,” Palaceer’s bragging about how he’s dressing like he’s going to “the [Muhammad] Ali, [Joe] Frazer fight.” This track features a female singer harmonizing as Palaceer does what could be considered spoken word, if not for his off kilter flow. It’s ill how he created a double entendre that parallels his physical environment with his mental state, “Clear some space out/ so we can space out.” It’s little phrases like this that hint at the scope of his relative self-awareness. It’s catchy while appealing to active listeners.


Shabazz seem as if their interested in a time when black kids were rocking African medallions and Malcolm X shirts without the halfcast corny “I’m trying to connect to my roots” sorta thing. It’s subtle, but subtlety goes a long way in this case. Black Up is a jigsaw puzzle full of crunchy thumping drums, crazy layered beats and warped samples that aren’t recognizable. Art and videos are other important components to Shabazz as it’s obvious that a lot of time goes into simplifying abstract ideas without losing their poignancy, especially if you don’t have a big budget record label backing your work. Shabazz is forward thinking without overt arrogance, conceptual without over calculating their music. Black Up is by far the most interesting album to be released this year. It stays playing in my house.

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