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Review: Shabazz Palaces Embrace the Cosmos on the Entrancing Quazarz Releases

Shabazz Palaces aren’t spring chickens, nor are they even technically a younger-generation act. The group’s mastermind, Palaceer Lazaro—earth name: Ishmael Butler—was once, in a previous creative life, known as Butterfly from Digable Planets. But Shabazz’s music circumvents genre convention with such unbridled imagination that it may as well represent the sound of youth culture clamoring at the gates for a changing of the guard. If George Clinton was able to refer to P-Funk as a mothership, then Shabazz Palaces could describe their new “monozygotic twin” albums, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines, as astral transportation vehicles.

On both of these albums, The Palaceer and his co-hort, multi-instrumentalist and lead serious facial-expression maker Tendai Maraire, employ a musical calculus that initially comes across as alien, even if you’re familiar with their back catalog. Though the duo certainly wore strangeness on their sleeve for their 2011 full-length debut Black Up and their 2014 follow-up Lese Majesty, both of those albums nevertheless contained a solid foundation in traditional beats. Not so this time around. Gangster Star, the first of the new albums, essentially begins in a beat-less haze. And while you can certainly tap your toe to tracks like “When Cats Caw” and “Shine a Light,” when Shabazz Palaces use synthetic hand-claps and spare drum machine patterns, they still manage to keep their music somehow devoid of momentum.

Even the thumping “Fine Ass Hairdresser” stutter-stops every few measures, so it’s nearly impossible to get into a groove of moving your body to the music. Ditto for the first half of “That’s How City Life Goes,” which pits a classical keyboard figure against a minimal beat that staggers so that the tune advances awkwardly, as if limping with a rock in its shoe. When the music suddenly shifts gears into a Devo-esque oom-pah groove (think ‘80s hits “Modern Love” or ”Tell Her About It” with a darker, new-wave feel), the change is so incongruous that you end up scratching your head more than jumping to your feet.

Make no mistake: this is not dance music. As bass-heavy and outsized as it gets at times, it’s aimed at levels of perception that one doesn’t access via the hips. “Welcome to Quazarz,” the leadoff track on the second album of the pair, contains a central cowbell figure reminiscent of War’s “Low Rider”—only the forward propulsion that defined that song and made it so satisfying is replaced by a feeling of hovering in the etheric realms. There are no “wheels,” so to speak, spinning under this music. “Welcome to Quazarz” and other tracks on the second album give you that sense of giddy disconnection not unlike when you’re intoxicated and your brain knows that you’re moving but your body doesn’t entirely register it.

Alongside Maraire’s hand percussion, the Latin, keyboard preset-sounding beat of “Effeminence” sits in the tune like a thin Japanese screen panel between rooms. Synthetic and analog shaker-like sounds and soft hand taps, delicate as pale watercolor flowers recede into the background, as if painted on the paper wall, but in the same shade. Needy, scene-chewing MCs would know nothing else but to barrel-in and let their insecurities rage until everything was torn down. Guest rapper Fly Guy Dai knows better, matching the hue of his surroundings with calm reserve.

Meanwhile, Butler and producer Sunny Levine (the grandson of Quincy Jones who has worked with Ariel Pink, Pete Yorn, Happy Mondays, and South African trumpet icon Hugh Masekela) turn simple components into sonic cubism on “Atlaantis.” Keyboards strobe ever so gradually, like glowing and dying embers, intercut by whisper-quiet cymbals and single-note bass throbs. On paper, there’s not much going on, but Butler and Levine create a very full sense of space. Again, though, it takes a while to acclimate to the rhythm—if it can even be called that. The light cymbal taps evoke traces of bebop, but the pattern is deconstructed into single pulses that drift in isolation, the groove equivalent of a hall of mirrors where the glass has been shattered and all the jagged angles prevent you from getting full glimpses of your own face.

Acts like Massive Attack, FKA Twigs, Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley, and Dan The Automator have explored similarly glitchy, abstract territory. As you work your way through the new material, it becomes apparent rather quickly that Shabazz Palaces have elevated their jazz-damaged phrasing into a unique musical language. Butler, of course, responds to the music with idiosyncratic lyrics to match. Name-dropping science fiction author Octavia Butler in the album press release, it’s no surprise that Butler has crafted the two new albums as a two-part concept featuring as its main character a being from another galaxy named Quazarz.

If the music itself sounds borne of outer or extra-dimensional space, the Quazarz albums are rife with references to death and injustice here on the ground. Police brutality is a recurring theme, with Butler enticing listeners to connect the dots between black oppression, the machinations of capitalism, and rap music’s rampant materialism. Butler doesn’t have to mention names for his simple chant of “Everybody rappin’ / everybody trappin’” on “Gorgeous Sleeper Cell” to ring as an indictment. “God, who came first?” he asks in the verse, “the rapper or the trap?” The indictment gets much more explicit on “30-Clip Extension,” where Butler harpoons shallow MCs with a searing diatribe: “Flossing in a peripheral sanity / chauvinist with feminine vanities / Puffing out his tattoo’d chest / towering his arrogance / Monetizing intelligence / all while narrowing our elegance / Parodying Our sufferance for a pittance like a pence penance / Some bitch shit so that’s your favorite rapper and he’s the best?”

Ironically, Butler’s lackadaisical delivery is part of what makes the Quazarz material so galvanizing when he decides to hit hard. Jealous Machines begins with a monologue over a gurgling, almost silly-sounding synth figure that blossoms into a Latin-flavored groove: “I’m from the United States of Amurdica / We talk with guns / Guns keep us safe / We don’t imagine past the image.” That’s followed by a chorus of voices pinging back and forth across the stereo field: “We killed love / We killed money / We killed Prince / We killed shame / We killed hope / We killed sex / We killed pride / We killed style / We killed imagination / We killed fresh / We killed the game / We killed air / We killed dope / We killed death.”

Much of the time, though, Butler’s message can be indecipherable. Shabazz Palaces typically mix vocals on the low side and/or treat them with heavy effects so they’re a challenge to make out. Neither of the albums comes with a lyric sheet, and all of the text on the back cover art/insert of Jealous Machines is practically illegible. So unless you’d already been informed, you wouldn’t know that Butler was speaking through an extraterrestrial’s eyes when he rhymes “Lost in these streets is now lost in the beat / Man, I can’t even remember my last tweet” on Gangster Star opener “Since C.A.Y.A.” (which stands for Seattle’s Central Area Youth Association).

And good luck parsing a coherent message from tracks like “Love in the Time of Kanye,” a brief guest feature for Purple Tape Nate, whose ambiguity isn’t even necessarily a drawback because the tune manages to be both narcoleptic, fluttery with attraction, and regretful all at the same time. Butler offers just enough of a roadmap between the bullet-point issues he’s raising in verses like: “I’m watching all the stars / falling out they bars / I see the sell outs, clowns, coons / staring empty minded at the moon / Ever waiting / this is why I ride the waves […] / This is why I freed the slaves.”

After a while, you start to get the general idea, as Butler and the featured guest MCs roundaboutly make pleas for us to preserve our humanity in the face of technological acceleration and the social ills we have yet to heal from. Accordingly, the vibe of the two records, which Butler recorded at separate locations over two different time periods with different producers, starts to contrast over repeated listens. Gangster Star leans towards a funkier, more upbeat mood—perhaps to match what it feels like for an alien to discover what life on earth is all about—while Jealous Machines tends in a darker, more modernist direction. On Lese Majesty, Shabazz Palaces leaned towards the indulgent, with a scattershot track sequence that was heavy on under-developed ideas bordering on interludes. This time, Butler and Maraire tighten their focus even as they serve up twice as much music.

Last year, before a Red Bull Select performance Butler told an interviewer that “it’s not just music that makes me like to do music.” A moment later, Maraire, answered “I don’t look at everything from a hip hop perspective.” Both statements came across as cocky, even dismissive. They’re also justified. Maraire, for example—a solo artist in his own right and the son of Zimbabwean mbira/marimba master and ethnomusicologist Dumisani Maraire—grew up steeped in too wide a palette to be relegated to his status as a rap producer. Shabazz Palaces are hardly the first to equate futurist space-travel mysticism with black consciousness. Their entire visual/conceptual aesthetic owes an enormous debt to artists like Sun Ra and Earth Wind & Fire, but they’ve provided a multi-dimensional blueprint for future rappers seeking to chart their own cosmic course.