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Black Up
Sub Pop
Format: CD / LP / Digital
Release Date: June 28, 2011
By Steve McPherson

Black Up is a slippery beast: challenging but not antagonistic, seductive but not out to impress. On the surface, the new project of Ishmael Butler (he of Digable Planets and more recently, Cherrywine) scans as occupying the same kind of abstract headspace as hip-hop acts like Anti-Pop Consortium, El-P, Dabrye, and others who break and fray beats. But where others take abstraction and process it through propulsion and aggression, Shabazz Palaces produce something both more alien and more relatable.

Working now under the moniker Palaceer Lazaro and unwilling to divulge very much information about who precisely is involved with Shabazz Palaces, Butler is committed above all else to allowing the music to make its own impression. There are welcome echoes of Digable Planets’ underrated Blowout Comb (Pendulum/EMI, 1994) in places, but such are the often woozy sounds here that more than the offspring of that aesthetic, Black Up feels like the result of an amnesiac trying to reassemble by rifling through a stack of unrelated snapshots. The song titles read like lines from a game of Exquisite Corpse; “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” bounces out on a ghostly, slowed-down playground chant and Butler serves as his own hype man, chattering in against his own words but laced with slapback echo. The mbira break that comes halfway through the track seems to signal a new melodic direction, but it’s a red herring. The track evaporates into what I guess passes for a hook: “Who / do you think / you are?” Not exactly the stuff to get the crowd moving. Just when it seems to start making sense, when those creepy children come back chanting and some kind of form is established, the song breaks off and disappears.

This is how things proceed in the world of Shabazz Palaces: more or less bereft of choruses, replete with chanted refrains, disorientingly abstract in sum but never less than crystal clear moment-to-moment. Butler’s cadence feels more conversational than performative; it’s laconic and sometimes marble-mouthed, but charmingly so. When the album’s orbit passes closest to that of Digable Planets on “Recollections of the Wraith,” it’s the best example of the album’s casual but smart beauty. There are at least four different types of reverb on the track: the cushy echo on the vocal track, the cavernous ping on the drums, the gated clip on the bass, and the lo-fi compressed room sound on the sampled vocal melody. Rather than blending, though, these different aural spaces remain distinct. This is not the clangy, abrasive disorientation of El-P, but something more subtly unsettling.

Where groups like those mentioned at the front end of this review seem committed to breaking something to make something, Shabazz Palaces don’t seem interested in manifestos or revolution. The sound of a cocking pistol on M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” resonates in many directions: as a political statement, as something brazen but also endearing, a repurposing of something violent into something lilting and catchy. But the same kind of sound here on “Yeah you” exists just for itself, with no direct connection to the lyrics of the song. The elements resist signification and leave you wondering what this is all supposed to be. Perhaps it’s best to just keep in mind what serves as the hook of “Are you … Can you … Were you? (Felt)”: “It’s a feeling.”

Visit: Shabazz Palaces | Sub Pop
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