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Shabazz Palaces
Black Up Alfred Soto , July 18th, 2011 12:53

Ishmael Butler takes relaxation seriously—and smartly. He doesn't confuse it with indolence. The former leader of beloved early 90s hip hop trio Digable Planets now works under a new moniker, and an ethos not far removed from Blowout Comb, the 1994 album which sold less well than the Planets' debut and introduced a thicker, bottom-heavy sound. Listening to it was like driving down a busy street with the windows down and catching snatches of jazz and rap from storefronts or passing cars. Black Up, Shabazz Palaces' first album after a couple of EP's released last summer, celebrates an adult kind of fun: a rapper in peak form whose humility — he doesn't hide behind the beats so much as share the mic with them — adduces his confidence. "Clear some space out where we can space out," he orders, or pleads, or muses on 'Recollections of the Wraith', coming as close as this skeptic gets to a maxim.

Remember: this is a guy who recorded a song in 1993 called 'Pacifics' in which he sipped on a Snapple while checking out Sartre and Camus. But he has limits. For one, I doubt he read these men carefully, as his mispronunciation of that pensive tortoise Sartre's name showed; moreover, there are few writers with whom Butler has less intellectual sympathy. Like a Woody Allen supporting actress, Butler is interested in the projection of intelligence; the complicated stuff about following a thought to its natural conclusion flummoxes him. Credit his unusually high timbre with a hint of a lisp. Words excite him, and he loves playing with them. Few rappers can use "sarcastic satires" like he does in 'Recollections of the Wraith' without sounding like a cretin, but listen to how the sibilants crack on his palate like rimshots on a snare drum. I want him to actually say a hapless title like 'An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum' aloud, and I can't think of anyone who can except GZA at his peak, and this rivals Liquid Swordz in beat quotient.

That 1995 sonic forebear is a clue into Butler's genealogy. To use "dense" as an adjective to describe Black Up is a start not an end. Jazz saxophones from who knows where and hazy female vocals on 'Endeavor For Never' answer the question posed by the Tricky of Maxinquaye; he gets the same effect with kalimba and sampled-distorted vocal on 'An Echo...' The insistent two-note crawl of 'You You', anchored by a rap that's as close an approximation to seething as Butler gets would have worried the DJ Shadow of Endtroducing.... Friction is his muse, evident in his choice of Doodlebug and the irreplaceable Ladybug in Digable Planets as interlocutors, and while I miss the sense of a genuine interaction Butler's simulations are almost as compelling. So while Black Up plays like obtrusive background hip hop if you're not in the right mood, you'll wind up rewinding to this or that track as soon as it's over. Shabazz Palaces would be flattered if you called them headphone hip-hop, and why not? Plugging himself straight into your head has been Butler's MO since 1993. Play it and chill with a Snapple.