Shabazz Palaces is modern rap music’s answer to Sun Ra. Just like the futurist Pharaoh of free jazz, Palaces has adorned its walls with convention-trashing compositions, pan-Afro themes, an unrestrained sound, and a ridiculous(ly awesome) wardrobe. In the eight years since the Shabazz EP became a regional hit in Seattle, the duo (consisting of rapper Ishmael Butler and instrumentalist Tendai Maraire) has further embraced the free aesthetic that made them the unique experimental hip-hop group that topped every critic’s end-of-the-year list.
Butler and Maraire frequently put it right in the listener’s face on their two new albums Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machine, released on the same day in 2017. Gangster Star is more on the spacey, dusty soul side of the aisle, while Jealous Machine is tighter, focused, and more outward about the societal targets in its socially conscious crosshairs. And, while fans will probably choose their favorite and religiously debate about it on Reddit until their fingers bleed, both albums stay true to the non-traditional tactics, keeping Shabazz Palaces planted in left field. Poignant lyrics that branch off into absurdist realms, tempo-changes galore, and beats that balance gloomy and gorgeous stack the two albums’ tracklists. Butler says both albums are filled with “mostly observations” about modern society.
So, should it surprise anyone that an album about observing modern society in 2017 has some political overtones? “If you’re not a white American, you inherently start to feel unwelcome and alien in this place,” says Butler. That estrangement from the world is at the heart of the companion LPs. Maraire and Butler employ the outsider’s perspective to make each Quazarz as subtext-dense as possible. “The narrative isn’t really sci-fi,” he explains. “It’s more about relating to the notion of being alien here in the United States, or it has to do with this whole movement for right-wingers to take back America.” Violence, xenophobia, and a distrust of an authority that implements both are recurring themes.
Jealous Machine is the technical big brother of the two albums. Its first track, “Welcome to Quazarz,” sets the stage with a description of the world’s main character Quazarz sees when he’s sent to “Amurderca.” The song’s parallels to modern America are not hidden. After describing his television as his lover, Butler goes on to list the body count Amurderca has racked up. “We killed freedom/ We killed obsessions/ We killed facts,” he raps.
“We use this trope of a sci-fi character, an alien from somewhere else, to talk about some things that are very real and local to America,” Butler says.
The two releases benefit from their lack of deference for jingoistic sensibilities, celebrity culture, technology, and anything in between. “The SS Quintessence,” also from Jealous Machine, poetically sums up cultural skepticism. Butler says, “For establishment held the patent/ To the revolting youth devices were gave/ And the questions were seized from asking.”
Fans looking for a more narratively focused and lushly produced experience will find more to love in Born on a Gangster Star. “Shine A Light” makes use of soul and disco to produce a real contender for beat of the year, while Butler’s effortless rhymes prove why he’s got a reputation as the coolest man you’ll ever meet. The production is simply imaginative at times. “Moon Whip Quäz” will make anyone’s intergalactic clubbing playlist. The grainy synths, funk drums, and thumping bass are guaranteed to shake spacecraft subwoofers.
When asked about the varying genres influencing Shabazz Palaces, Butler stated “We go off instinct, man.”
That instinct has served Butler well since his days in jazz-rap trio Digable Planets. Two decades after Planets’ last album, Butler reemerged with Maraire and a new palatial moniker. Shabazz Palaces became the first rap artist signed to indie rock overlord record label Sub Pop. 2011’s Black Up was soon released and quickly became a new milestone in experimental hip-hop.
With all the world building the Quazarz saga did in the course of two albums, it’s hard not to question if there will be continuations. But, two ambitious LPs dropped in one year hasn’t shaken Butler of his go-with-the-flow attitude that got him this far. He says, “I don’t know where we’ll go next.” Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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