One close examination of the Sub Pop Records roster shows that they are by no means known for hip hop. Probably the closest they’ve ever come to hip hop are via a few songs from Flight of the Conchords. In case you’re not fully comprehending it, that last sentence was a joke. Kind of. It makes their signing of Shabazz Palaces just a little bit perplexing, like buying a canary when you’ve already got a house full of cats. But diversity, like an old wooden ship, is what any good record label aspires to. Shabazz Palaces might have been more at home on something like Anti, but Sub Pop’s stellar reputation seems to indicate that this particular project is something special. Their debut album “Black Up” definitely places them in unique company, a wholly uncommercial effort that plays minimal arrangements for all they’re worth. That they’re signed to an indie label makes sense too. Things appear to work out for all parties involved, because odd though it may be, this different approach to hip hop stands out and helps to give creedence to a type of music that has tended to border on stale in recent years.
That’s not to say “Black Up” is the be-all, end-all of modern day hip hop records. Kanye West can turn in a record judged by some to be absolutely perfect, even if it plays to common conventions while also pushing stadium-sized grandstanding. Shabazz Palaces don’t 100% knock it out of the park on their first try, but they’re trending in the right direction. It may or may not take some serious digging to find out that this project is the creation of Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, former member of the equally inventive hip hop collective Digable Planets. He’s trying really hard to keep his identity a secret, with his name not mentioned in any promotional materials, along zero photos to go along with it. So how was the veil eventually lifted? A distinctive voice is a distinctive voice, and Butler has got one. His perspective, too, is all his own, naturally avoiding cliches such as women, money and guns. Even race primarily takes a back seat to topics like defining your own identity and then living it. Pure, unfiltered honesty combined with a sheer lack of pretension or attempts to shock (looking at you Tyler, the Creator). Piecing together exactly what the themes of the album or even certain songs are all about can be a challenge, and that’s because most everything requires close scrutiny along with some deeper philosophical thoughts to best understand. When he repeats the phrase “Who/do you think/you are?” towards the end of “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum”, it’s not done in a menacing fashion but rather a pondering one.
One of the more fascinating elements on “Black Up” is the pure beat construction on each individual track. It’s easy to throw rhymes over whatever is going on, but many of the melodies could very well work in other capacities with other musicians. A number of these tracks could register as part of the chillwave or glo-fi movement, and that’s just one aspect of many this music pulls from. Soul, R&B, jazz, electronica and even a little gospel are all represented in one form or another, and this blurring of genre tropes is a big part of what makes this record such a strong listen. You may not have much in the way of hooks to grab onto, but the direction each song goes in is never predictable or plain. Curveballs are thrown at multiple junctures, to the point where something like “Free Press and Curl” sounds completely different at the end compared to where it began. Sometimes you get a female voice courtesy of THEESatisfaction stepping in to soar just a bit in between the rhymes. A few tracks lack much in the way of rhyming anyways, because it’s all about creative wordplay and not writing something simply to fill an open-ended void. This is less hip hop and more a collection of tone poems with some well-placed beats. It is the work of a highly experienced, wise artist that has learned plenty about life, love and art, now looking to release something that’s “next level”. Butler tries to avoid being associated with Shabazz Palaces not because he’s ashamed of the project or likes the idea of turning this into a guessing game, but rather because he wants these tracks and this record to be the only focus. It needn’t matter who is behind it, so long as you absorb something from it. That’s not to say everything makes sense, or there are truly lessons to be learned. The meaning and purpose is not for you or me to decide. How “Black Up” functions in your life is almost entirely based upon your own individual experiences and preferences, and that’s what every great record has the ability to do. Your sole responsibility is to let it into your ears. It will do the rest.