Album Review: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star by Shabazz Palaces
Very Good, Based on 12 Critics
Paste Magazine - 85 Based on rating 8.5/10
Shabazz Palaces' Ishmael Butler (aka Palaceer Lazaro) has always used fantasy and fiction to make salient observations about the real world we inhabit. As Butterfly from the '90s conscious rap group Digable Planets, he used psychedelic poetics to promote progressive values such as a woman's right to choose. As Butler matured and evolved as a lyricist over the past two decades, his work became less literal and more literary.
Israel Butler and Tendai Maraire, better known as *Shabazz Palaces, have always done things at their own pace, in their own style. Possessing the distinction of being Sub Pop's first hip-hop act, no one else really sounds like the former jazzists from Digable Planets. Right from their gorgeous full-length debut, 2011's Black Up the duo announced themselves as out of this universe aliens who understand the human condition more than anyone else with their starkly minimalist sound played through a hadron collider of echo.
I n years to come, when the career of the Seattle rap duo Shabazz Palaces is viewed through a historical lens, it may well be opined that these third and fourth albums were substantially more straightforward, even more commercial, than their predecessor, 2014's Lese Majesty. Said opinion would be correct, although it's worth noting that these two interlinking conceptual works about an alien called Quazarz ("a sentient being from somewhere else, an observer sent here to Amurderca to chronicle and explore as a musical emissary", explains the accompanying blurb) involve muffled, lo-fi instrumentals; tracks that sound like several entirely unconnected pieces of music spliced together; and at least one song on which the rapping appears to be in a different time signature to the backing track. Among a panoply of obscure special guests is the Shogun Shot, who raps with a pronounced lisp, and a man who calls himself Fly Guy Dai, a name that carries the suggestion, alas unfounded, that he might be from Aberystwyth.
Hip-hop has spent decades evolving past the platform of ingenuity, ephemerality, and improvisation it was founded on, continuing to shoot out new branches of dynamic, iconoclastic weirdness in defiance of the genre's increasingly safe and corporatized center. Yet these experimental new modes still largely remain rooted to a fixed perspective, with former children of poverty announcing their rebirth as economically ascendant demigods surrounded by all the haughty implements of wealth and splendor. This POV has remained rap's most persistent constant, even as gender, political, and emotional concerns become more fluidly confronted, with few MCs daring to diverge from the standard narrative of ever-mounting self-improvement and truly head out into the creative weeds.
Ishmael Butler's Shabazz Palaces project has always occupied another plane, his discordant sounds and bizarro abstract lyrics just close enough to the familiar to spur intense cognitive dissonance. The music Butler makes with Tendai Maraire is avant-garde but undeniably focused: free-jazz rap made with samplers, sequencers, and drum machines. Distinctly informed by blackness and the black experience, it nonetheless has defied any previously constructed conventions, an awkward fit for any box you might try to squeeze it into.
In the age of compact discs, tombstone-sized vinyl editions for one album, and endless playlists, 78 minutes of music split in half seems peculiar, but there are significant distinctions between the two Shabazz Palaces full-lengths that landed in 2017. After Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines was created primarily during multiple sessions in Marina del Rey with co-producer Sunny Levine, Ishmael Butler reconnected in Seattle with longtime associate Erik Blood for the purpose of cutting bonus tracks.
On their dusty space-rap debut, Black Up, and then on its abstract follow up Lese Majesty, Seattle hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces established their output as belonging more to the art gallery than the streets. Led by the Palaceer Lazaro (also known as Ishmael Butler, who formerly was a member of jazz-rap group Digable Planets), the group takes its head-trip aesthetic down thoughtful and conceptual avenues. Their ambitious new two-album project, centered around an interstellar-traveler character called Quazarz, is their most fun and thematically rich work, though it still makes no concessions for those new to Shabazz Palaces' weirdness.
Experimental hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces' 2014 album 'Lese Majesty' was an ambitious beast. Split up into seven suites that were indecipherable upon a cursory listen, it sometimes came across a bit like a mad galaxy of ideas thrown together into one strange universe that refused to be labelled. Upon their return, Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire have lost none of their determination to push the boundaries, deciding to release two albums on the same day.
Nobody would accuse Shabazz Palaces of lacking ambition. Comprised of ex-Digable Planets rapper Ishmael Butler and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, the duo took a hatchet to established hip-hop tropes on previous long players Black Up and Lese Majesty. This follow-up consists of two simultaneously-released concept albums that recount a space fantasy so off-the-wall it would make George Clinton's head spin.
Ishmael Butler first became known as being the leader in Digable Planets, an early 1990s hip-hop group that scored a breakout hit with the jazz-tinged "Cool Like That". They followed that single with a well-regarded second album called Blowout Comb but failed to connect with the audience. After nearly 15 years in the wilderness, Butler returned with producer Tendai Maraire under the moniker Shabazz Palaces.
Shabazz Palaces aren't spring chickens, nor are they even technically a younger-generation act. The group's mastermind, Palaceer Lazaro--earth name: Ishmael Butler--was once, in a previous creative life, known as Butterfly from Digable Planets. But Shabazz's music circumvents genre convention with such unbridled imagination that it may as well represent the sound of youth culture clamoring at the gates for a changing of the guard.
As a big, big fan of Flying Lotus' band of genre-defying Brainfeeder pals, I've always felt Shabazz Palaces might be the most underhyped, with their Daft Punk-esque costumes and slower, intricately mixed and always forward-thinking beats, often getting swallowed up in the hype over Flylo, Kamasi Washington or Thundercat. This double release - what should have been their epic double feature - doesn't exactly help me prove my point. When I first told one of my friends SP were coming out with a twin, highly conceptual pair of records, he simply groaned.