, March 28th, 2012 11:36
"It's a feeling." A simple, abstract hook repeated ad infinitum by MC Ishmael Butler, aka Palaceer Lazaro, on 'Are you... Were you... Can you... (Felt)', from this writer's favourite album of 2011, Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up. Three little words that summed up the record's indescribable vibe better than a thousand reviews could. It's a feeling. A feeling that here was something genuinely new and groundbreaking emerging before our eyes, being built from the ground up at a frightening pace. It's a feeling. A feeling that something was stirring in Seattle, a bright new day for hip-hop, a movement of sorts spearheaded by Butler's Afro-futurist warriors which also included collaborators and new Sub Pop label-mates THEESatisfaction. It's a feeling. It's a feeling.
It's Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White's honeyed tones you hear backing Butler on Black Up. Listening to their fantastic debut proper, awE naturalE, it's not hard to see why the two groups gravitate so naturally towards each other. Like the flip-sides of the same coin, the two albums share much common ground. Yet in as many ways it’s a case of opposites attracting: both harken back to hip hop's late-80s/early-90s golden era, but if Shabazz Palaces are the new Public Enemy (edgy, angry, aggressive in a scarily cerebral way) then the girls are their 'Daisy Age' counterparts, a hippy chick A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul extolling peace and love. Both borrow heavily from 60s and 70s jazz and funk, but while their comrades favour the avant-garde and militant (Sun Ra, the Last Poets), Stas and Cat tend towards the gentler sounds of Nina Simone or Bobbi Humphrey. If Palaceer Lazaro’s synapse-snapping cryptic wordplay felt like an acid-trip into the labyrinths of the mind, awE naturalE is more of a stoned Sunday morning space odyssey.
It’s not all picnics in the park, however. From the untamed afros that adorn the album’s cover to the tribal percussion and looped jazz licks that form the basis of most of its tracks, it’s evident that awE naturalE is intended as both a celebration of black and female empowerment, and a reminder of those long and ongoing struggles for equality. "I am the bitch on the side", they chant at the outset, simultaneously acknowledging the weight of the word and using it to beat down their oppressors. They may be self-styled "queens of the stoned age, empresses of time", but they still feel the "need to prove" themselves, and when Stas says "my melanin is relevant" on ‘Deeper’ you know – despite everything your liberal social consciousness is telling you – that she’s right.
But for all its subtle lecturing, awE naturalE's overriding message comes across loud and clear: just relax and enjoy life’s little pleasures. Lead single ‘QueenS’ implores those who are too cool to dance to its low-BPM electro house groove to "bring yourself" and "sweat through your cardigans"; the brassy, grinding ‘Sweat’ extolls the virtues of a good old-fashioned two-person horizontal workout. ‘Existinct’, with its sun-kissed piano riff and fluttering beats, encapsulates the mood of the album with its breezy hook: "Guess that’s the way that it goes". Stas and Cat bridge the gap between Baduist neo-soul and hip hop (Butler shows up on ‘God’ and ‘Enchantruss’ with a pair of typically scene-stealing verses, but Irons holds her own with some pretty fly lyrics throughout) with faultless and endlessly engaging production that juxtaposes organic and electronic, past and future. They've just taken a Seattle indie label better known for grunge and folky pop one step closer to revolutionising rap music. Don’t worry, though; just turn off your swag. Feel their energy flowing through your mind. Satisfaction guaranteed.