Album review: Shabazz Palaces, ‘Black Up’ (Sub Pop)

August 24, 2011

No denying there are moments of dark malignance, choking claustrophobia and undefined but perceptible evil on the full-length debut by Shabazz Palaces, the mysterious Seattle crew that represents Sub Pop’s first hip-hop signing. If that musical description sounds familiar, well, much the same has been said of the backing tracks provided by the considerably more-hyped Odd Future. But this crew is much more sophisticated in crafting their music of menace—there’s as much Sun Ra and Massive Attack here as there is torture porn soundtrack lifts—and the dark sounds are part of a greater whole, a bigger story with a much more inspiring point than cheap shock and pathetic gross-out.

Though the group has done its best to shroud itself in mystery; although he hides behind the new pseudonym “Palaceer Lazaro,” the driving force here is Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, a key member of the musically inventive and lyrically uplifting Digable Planets back in the early ’90s, before “alternative hip-hop” became a punch line. He also led the unjustly forgotten Cherrywine, whose album Bright Black was one of the best releases of 2003. But Black Up may be the most ambitious disc Butler has given us: an atmospheric concept effort not unlike Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid, envisioning (in my reading) an apocalyptic meltdown here on earth, and the longing to build a new, more spiritual and color-blind future in space. Or, the Albert Ayler/Sun Ra/George Clinton trip reinvented (yet again) for a new genre and a new generation.

The lyrical musings here don't always make sense. Don’t ask me what the heck titles such as “An echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum” and “A Treatease Dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 Answer)” are supposed to convey. But the free-flowing raps and the complicated musical backings, which draw on everything from free jazz to krautrock and Musique concrete to the gorgeous, soulful vocals of Cat and THEESatisfaction, make for an unforgettable rocket ride from the bottom of pit of despair to a balance of boundless horizons and possibilities.

On the four-star scale: 3.5 STARS

(If it seems as if there have been a lot of 3.5-star reviews here of late, well, it’s because there have been. I’m using the last couple of weeks of summer to catch up on some buried treasures I’ve been slow in getting around to reviewing.)

STILL IN HEAVY ROTATION

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Le Butcherettes, Sin Sin Sin (Rodriguez Lopez Productions)

Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’ (Columbia)

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Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (Capitol)

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Clive Tanaka, Jet Set Siempre No. 1

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Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic)

Screeching Weasel, First World Manifesto (Fat Wreck Chords)

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Radiohead, The King of Limbs (self-released)

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The Decemberists, The King Is Dead (Capitol)