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Shabazz Palaces
Robed In Rareness Arusa Qureshi , October 24th, 2023 07:22

With a host of new collaborators, Shabazz Palaces’s sound is pushed and pulled in multiple directions at once, without once neglecting the interplanetary funk mutant hip hop sound they have always excelled in, finds Arusa Qureshi

There’s a celestial quality to everything Ishmael Butler touches. As one third of Grammy-winning 90s trio Digable Planets, he can be credited for contributing to the evolution of alternative hip-hop and its associated subgenres. But in this century, the vocalist and producer has continued to push the envelope in terms of style and generic conventions as part of Shabazz Palaces, repositioning what hip-hop can and should be to allow for more experimentation, as well as the merging of disparate ideas.

Robed In Rareness is the first new Shabazz Palaces material since 2020’s The Don Of Diamond Dreams, and once again Butler has proven himself a constantly shifting adventurer, responding to an ever-changing landscape of trends and innovations in music, without losing an ounce of his roots in interplanetary funk and Afrofuturism.

The seven-song collection is a thesis on taking risks, with Butler inviting in a host of collaborators, all offering something different and, in some cases, a step away from the characteristic Shabazz Palaces sound. But when drenched in the cosmic musicality of that Shabazz sound, Butler shows that there is strength in numbers and in being able to amplify the skills of fellow collaborators. Seattle rappers Royce The Choice and Porter Ray, for example, both feature in ways that showcase their individual rap styles while also underlining the tangential and avant-garde soundscapes that Shabazz Palaces have always worked within.

The former appears on opening track ‘Binoculars’, going back-to-back with Butler’s effect-treated vocals to create a feeling of weightlessness, as if the pair are floating casually and carefree in the void. Butler’s lyrics echo this sentiment: “All I wanna do is see the girls get a chance / All I wanna do is see the bros gettin’ bands / All I wanna do is feel free in my mind / All I wanna do is grab hold of my time”. The Porter Ray track ‘P Kicking G’, meanwhile, is minimal in its beats and fluttering synth line, but there is something so interesting in how the playful and fairly run-of-the-mill lyrics (“Shake it like that, like that, like that, like that…”) don’t necessarily match the futuristic, electronic backdrop, which is reminiscent of the soundtrack to a sci-fi epic.

Butler’s twin Lavarr the Starr and his son, emo-rap dynamo Lil Tracy are both included in Robed In Rareness, too; Lavarr on the mellow, 80s synth pop sounding ‘Cinnamon Bun’ and Tracy on album highlight ‘Woke Up In A Dream’. The latter in particular shows Butler’s openness to welcoming in varying styles and his trust in the process of collaboration. In this case, Tracy’s understated rapping and the track’s reverb-laden cavernous space amalgamate to illustrate the titular dreamscape.

Final track ‘Hustle Crossers’ closes the collection in a way that is sonically quintessential Shabazz. It’s fitting that it’s the only track without a guest feature but its spacey, laidback vibe and gentle instrumentation point to what Butler does best – creating ambiguous, cinematic and compelling sound worlds that skirt the boundaries of contemporary hip-hop without diminishing any central detail in the process.