Release Date: Apr 17, 2020
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Rap, Pop/Rock
"This is high art!" Shabazz Palaces bark on 'Chocolate Souffle'. And they're completely, utterly correct. 'The Don Of Diamond Dreams' does feel like a culmination of a decade's work. This is the first release from the afro-futurist duo since 2017's twin projects 'Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star' and 'Quazarz vs.
As their creative spark brought to light the growing struggles of political and societal distress, its result triggered a surge for truer change where corrupt ideologies and fractured systems were held to a level of accountability. Digable Planets served not just as a beacon for collective solidarity, but a group deeply-rooted in advocating for equality and peace. While the trio only produced two full-lengths before its demise, group leader, Ishmael Butler, has since transferred a version of that desire to his longest mainstay and a first without longtime collaborator, Tendai Maraire.
Ishmael Butler and Tendai "Baba" Maraire of Shabazz Palaces have always been proud iconoclasts, consistently breaking ground in spaces once thought incompatible with hip-hop. They were among the few rap acts signed to Sub Pop; they were pretty much the only rap artists to ever perform at the avant-garde Big Ears festival in Knoxville. This adventurous spirit continues down the Butler family line with Ishmael's son Jazz, aka Lil Tracy.
Ishmael Butler starts the first proper song on the fifth Shabazz Palaces album with wanderlust whispers reminiscent of Model 500's "Night Drive." The MC also echoes the early techno classic's theme of travel facilitated by nature as much as technological advancements, eagerly "hurtling through space" with moonlight as his conductor. The live-sounding retro-futuristic fusion accompanying him -- humming low end, simmering snares, and fleshy handclaps, seemingly guided by early-'70s Miles Davis sessions -- is a greater indication of what follows. Compared to SP's conceptual third and fourth LPs, which arrived together in 2017, The Don of Diamond Dreams is unified by its funkier and humanized sonics more than its lyrics.
I'm staring at the album cover for The Don Of Diamond Dreams looking for clues. At first glance, it looks like it could be a poster for a Blaxploitation flick shot by one of Sun Ra's disciples. Ishmael Butler, vocalist and one half of the duo, is in the centre adorned in a gold cape and aviator sunglasses, a gold cobra curling round to his right. Is that Arabic script in the background? Or Amharic? It's impossible to tell.
I shmael "Butterfly" Butler's days as part of Grammy-winning golden age hip-hop group Digable Planets are almost out of sight. Few in music - let alone in rap - are granted a shot at a second coming, so when the trio first parted ways in 1995 and Butler moved back to Seattle, he could have been forgiven for thinking that was that. However, on meeting multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire (son of mbira maestro Dumisani Maraire, and not part of this new record), the two embarked on a collaboration that would reinvigorate Butler's desire to release music and rejuvenate interest in fringe hip-hop styles.