ALBUM REVIEW: Shabazz Palaces - Black Up

Heads down, Shabazz Palaces are quietly producing some of the most interesting hip-hop of the year.

A- | 6.28.11 | Sub Pop | Mog | MP3 | Vinyl | CD

Shabazz Palaces - "Swerve... The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)" (MP3)

I don’t know much about Shabazz Palaces. I don’t know how many people are in the group. I can’t visualize how they create their off-kilter, often aggressive and occasionally euphoric instrumentals. I don’t always know what the hell the group’s MC, Palaceer Lazaro, is actually rapping about. What I do know is that I really like this music.

The saying “mystery is the new hype” is one that could easily be applied to Shabazz Palaces. However, it wouldn’t quite be appropriate. The sense that comes from Black Up is, rather than using their mystique to garner popularity, they’re utilizing it to dispel any preconceptions. Heads down, they’re quietly producing some of the most interesting hip-hop of the year.

The primary trait of Shabazz Palaces is a relentless inventiveness. No two songs sound the same and, apart from a penchant for interestingly sampled vocals, there aren’t many sonic placeholders that are repeated throughout any of their material. They like bass, they like off-kilter percussion, and they’re unafraid to make it weird and obfuscated. As Palaceer phrases it in “Are you… Can you… Were you? (Felt),” he’s “trying to find the diamonds underneath the subtlest reflections.”

The diversity between and in every song of this album is something that makes it a consistent record and a testament to the flexibility of hip-hop. The biggest talking point of the album du jour Bon Iver, Bon Iver, has been “Beth/Rest,” where he puts in a somewhat dramatic shift from the sound of the rest of the album, which many (myself not included) believe took away from the rest of the record. In Black Up, Shabazz Palaces prove that controversy false, that great albums can be built on the platform of complete sonic diversity.

This approach is made clear from the opening track, “free press and curl.” Characterized by alternating levels of bass and a sample that can be best described as convoluted, due the way the female vocals seem to fold in on themselves before rising in pitch. At the 3 minute mark the track ends, then reincarnates itself. Tacked onto the end of the song, a new track opens with the great line, “Thou shall bask in the light of my home screen glow.” This “song” is only a minute long, and is just as good as the material it’s sandwiched between. This is a strategy that’s repeated through the record, and one that represents just how full of ideas this rap crew is.

Keeping the project somewhat grounded are the rhymes of Lazaro, just because what he is doing can be easily recognized as rapping, while the instrumentals are so dynamic they recall the far reaches of modern experimental hip-hop.

That’s not to say his rapping is consistently conventional. The rhymes on this album are dense, but often fun – a tough line to walk for any rapper that he’s able to handle the challenge with apparent ease. The lyrics themselves seem to ride a pendulum between being occasionally brilliant bits of wordplay, and a call back to hip-hop classicism in terms of simple rhymes and familiar content. However, whenever the rapping could be treading well-worn territory Palaceer changes the formula, delivering it in such a way that affirms that the last thing Shabazz Palaces want to be is predictable.

All of this serves to make great hip-hop. As odd as the music is, alternating between spacious and heady to dense and dark, this album is straight hip-hop. It’s singularly concerned with technically great rapping and hard-hitting beats. It’s hard to recognize it as such, though, because it doesn’t sound like any other hip-hop album that’s out.

Shabazz Palaces - "An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum

Shabazz Palaces - "Are you... Can you... Were you... (Felt)"