Shabazz Palaces, the mysterious jazz hip-hop project from Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire, is back. It’s been a while since their debut album, Black Up, released on Sub Pop in 2011. We’ve heard little from the driving force (Butler) since then; he’s been quite determined to make sure that this is the case. Butler prefers to read what others have to say about his work rather than tell listeners what to think, he says. The result of that ideology is a somewhat contrived mystery punctuated with sporadic confident proclamations of greatness, such as: “We won’t be doing no flopping”. What to make of this? Of course, if you subscribe to Ishmael’s philosophy it doesn’t matter and shut up. With that idea in mind, let’s get into the music.
Dawn In Luxor sets the tone fairly overtly, giving us the hazy and indeterminate beats that we should quickly get used to on this record. The verse evokes hazy and sweltering evenings over Egypt. Dripping reverb, it’s hard to latch onto the rhymes at play for any length of time. Perhaps we’re just supposed to soak it all in. Forerunner Foray gives us some Hyperdub-by beats and a lazy but logical beat, over which the flow is far more easy to follow. The themes are abstract, celestial, and pretty profound. Ishmael’s story winds around, from messages of individualism and faith, to apathetic references, to the tit-for-tat violence and tension between gangs. It’s a bizarrely spiritual and spaced out portrayal of these guys’ experiences.
The structure of the album, broken up into little pieces as it is, exacerbates the major problem of the record. Each of the songs are too hazy, indistinct, and directionless to really be at all enjoyable. The quality of the album is so low overall that the only tracks that actually stick in my mind are those that are so short and pointless so as to be frustrating (Divine Of Form) or the very worst tracks. #CAKE is my stand out track simply because of its hook that is so awful even under several layers of self-awareness of irony. “I’m having my cake and I’m eating cake,” Butler tells us every other line, in a moronic sing-song voice amongst vague rhymes with broken flow. If I sound a little tense, it’s because I’m so disappointed that these guys have fallen so far up their own back-end after their fantastically sexy and smart debut album.
After I’d heard #CAKE, my experience of the album all went to pot. I couldn’t hear any obtuse references to reality after feeling so irked by the self-aggrandising pretentiousness of an act that are supposed to be so hellbent on the individualistic flight from artifice and toward spirituality. The nuanced and ingenious production that I loved in Black Up has become an abrasive waste of time and energy. The guys seem to jarringly change time signatures and shudder in and out of the flow quite consciously, to no positive effect.
Overall, this album left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. This project started as such a promising jazz, hip-hop fusion out of a great art collective from the Pacific NW, and now it’s just another pretentious project from an oversized ego with an inflated sense of spirituality and profundity. Rabble rabble.