Outside of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one isn’t often given the opportunity to describe a hip-hop album as “trippy” or “psychedelic.” That’s not an insult to the genre; hard-hitting beats and rapid-fire lyricism have been the cornerstones of the medium for the last three decades, and the psychedelic drugs that produced the acid culture were never as prevalent in African-American communities as the more harmful and debilitating narcotics like crack or heroin. Hip-hop also doesn’t lend itself easily to the notion of outfits that are nearly completely without precedent. Even the most ambitious hip-hop artists like Kanye West or Madvillain all operate within a certain pre-defined network and draw outside influences from mainstream indie rock or electronica into their works to create a wonderful fusion. It always makes it easier to critique hip-hop when you have a convenient frame of reference. When an artist draws on jazz heavily, he’s similar to A Tribe Called Quest. Kanye and Jay-Z perfected the grandiose soul sampling that defined hip-hop for a decade. Dre and his progeny delivered us the thumping beats and easy riding rhythms of West Coast hip-hop. So, when I say that Black Up, the 2011 debut LP by Seattle hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, is nearly without precedent, that really means something. While after several listens, I still haven’t been able to discern just what in the hell this album was all about or even scratched the surface of the songs’ many subtleties and hidden secrets, I do know that this is one of the most remarkably original and fresh-faced hip-hop albums in years, and while it may not match the blissful pop/hip-hop/rock fusion of MBDTF, it more than exceeds it in creativity and bravado.
To say that Shabazz Palaces make Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti look mildly eccentric would only be putting it lightly. The only comparison that readily springs to mind is the dubstep album Untrue by reclusive artist Burial, not because it utilizes the signature thumping bass beats of dub but for the way it incorporates dark and moody ambience into the hip-hop realm. Using heavily distorted vocals (except when he chooses to simply rap and more on how excellent his mic skills are shortly), Shabazz Palaces transforms Palaceer Lazarro (Ishmael Butler formerly of Digable Planets) into a terrifying monster of urban storytelling and interlaces looped vocal samples during musical interludes to add to the overall disorienting effect of the album. Utilizing the jangling and vibrating synth lines I associate with space rock to xylophones to a recurring noise that can only be described as sounding like the warped and mutated scream of a child, Shabazz Palaces throws the whole sonic book at you and then writes some pages of their own for good measure. Palaceer will sound as if his voice is being transmitted down a well and then on a dime switch to sounding as if he is coming from everywhere at once. Gorgeous soul samples of female vocals will be layered over “Treefingers”-esque interludes of “down the rabbit hole” experimentation.
Ishmael Butler’s rap style is as avant-garde as the group’s musical arrangements, and once again, he defies easy categorization. At nearly all moments, he is laying down rhymes with such lightning quick verbal agility that those who think Bone-Thugz-N-Harmony are hard to understand should keep the lyric sheet handy cause you might get lost. Fast rapping isn’t his unique skill though. It’s the ever-shifting verse structure that consistently refuses to give you any sort of simple verse-chorus-verse format or even a rhyming scheme that is especially consistent. He will go from laying down mile-a-minue word associations where nearly every word rhymes reminiscent of certain members of the Wu-Tang Clan to a more deliberate and sustained verse structure. He wraps all of this in a remarkably literate style that shows why Digable Planets were a Grammy-winning outfit when they were still together. There is such darkness and gloominess to the storytelling here, but it’s presented with such precision and skill that even when the album can be depressing or (and this is most often the case) completely terrifying, you’re bowled over by the fact that this is a debut LP and not the work of a veteran outfit (even if Ishmael Butler is a veteran performer).
If you think there’s a chance this band might be overly pretentious by my description of their sound or even through their outrageously long song titles like “A Treatease Dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)”, then maybe this isn’t for you. This is challenging material. It will take many listens to grasp the totality of this piece, and even then I wonder if complete understanding is possible or desirable. I know how I complained in my last review about the lack of any clear-cut singles from Circuital, and there are even less likely singles from this album, but that’s ok this time because this album is meant to be desired as a whole. When your best tracks scare the living daylights out of this reviewer and sound exactly like what I imagine a bad acid trip would feel like (I’m specifically referring to “An Echo from the Hosts that Profess Infinitum”), then you’re not going to be rising up the iTunes single chart. Hip-hop groups that can successfully channel the looping nirvana of Panda Bear do not generally produce a big hit like “Runaway” or “All of the Lights.” On “The Kings New Clothes Were Made by His Own Hands” though, you might not have a star single but you have just another example of a wildly ambitious hip-hop duo exploring the sonic possibilities of their genre further than anyone has ever gone before.
I’m not going to say that all hip-hop fans should pick this up. If you wondered what in the hell was going on during the vocoder solo of “Runaway” or think that Lil Wayne is the high point of hip-hop, you’re going to be more lost than the main character of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. However, this is a must listen for all followers of experimental and ambitious music. A quick read of my reviews for albums from 2011 will see me making a Who’s Who list of various bands’ influences or the group’s the simply blatantly ripped off. To find a group that stands completely on its own with little in the way of discernible ancestry is a music lover’s dream come true. This album can be about as inaccessible as it gets, and this should in no way be your introduction to more experimental hip-hop (just listen to The Low End Theory and then Kanye’s discography in order and some Radiohead and some Animal Collective), but for those of us ready to take the dive, it couldn’t be more rewarding. I’ve listened to it several times now and each time I grasped some new nugget of detail or texture from the album, and I know I’ll be back for more.
Final Score: A-