Shabazz Palaces: Rap’s Avant-Garde Comes to Northampton
Published: Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 20:04
Shabazz Palaces’ song “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum” starts with a cry. In a few seconds the beat kicks in carrying a flute, and the sound becomes something similar to M.I.A.: hypnotic, exotic and bizarrely prophetic. The voice of Shabazz Palaces’ frontman lends the music this prophetic quality. Synthesizing the dripping and conflicting undercurrents, Ishmael Butler spits something like spoken word poetry – a hip-hop version of Nine Inch Nails with his widely varying selections of soundtracks.
His album “Black Up,” released June 28, 2011, moves from cryptic to soothing, from elevator-esque to mesmerizing. Songs vary from danceable anthems to meditation chants. Imagine the Black-Eyed Peas and Bjork smashed together and you’ll begin to understand what awaits you on this album. According to Pitchfork.com, Ishmael Butler “enacts the union of these opposites – words as action, action into words – and it’s no exaggeration to call this transmutation what it is: magic.”
At its best, that’s what Shabazz Palaces’ music is: magic. At its worst it is confusing. With a stream-of-consciousness flow the rap floats over the music, inflecting but not crystallizing any specific meaning. The song “Endeavors for Never” is more typical than the other songs on the album; the rap is more easily decipherable without the thick resonating depth of tracks behind it.
The song “Are you…Can you…Were you...? (Felt)” and its video prove that meaning is not what the songs are about. Following a predictable enough narrative through a non-linear structure, the video does its best to keep questions in the mix. When the characters speak, it is in a different language without subtitles: the impact is in the scene, the sound and the lack of understanding. Shabazz Palaces is pulling hip-hop back toward its poetry roots.
The album’s short film – also titled Black Up – expresses meaning in a more obvious way than “Are you…Can you…Were you? (Felt),” evoking a picture of life as vivid but more ambiguous than Maluca’s “El Tigeraso.” Video director Kahlil Joseph makes full use of the song’s rich sounds and spaces, tying in images of the urban world typically shown in rap videos with footage of nature, a mysterious field covered in bodies and pigs in a slaughterhouse. The semantic depth of the combination of sights and sounds is intriguing, and the words of Ishmael Butler’s rap – “It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling” – emphasize without explaining the reasons for these juxtapositions. Reviewer Justin Paul of Undertheradar.nz says, “This is for listeners who are more than happy to remain lost.”
Shabazz Palaces has managed to escape the world of canned beats and lyrical inanities and innovate. The resulting experience is a new one, caught between hip-hop and jazz, rap and poetry. From this group’s musical wanderings, in which sight and sound often punctuate each other in new and unexpected ways, art has emerged.
Shabazz Palaces comes to Iron Horse April 12 at 10pm. Tickets are $15 at the door and $12.50 in advance.