As Ishmael Butler creeps further past 50, he occupies a rare space in the pantheon of contemporary music. To a considerable portion of the mainstream, he's the dude who used to be in Digable Planets, he's Lil' Tracy's pop, or he's tied geographically to a rap scene whose most tangibly famous artists aren't even the same creative galaxy. But if you know you know. As I've mentioned many times for this site and elsewhere, Butler remains one of the most influential hip-hop musicians of the past 25 years, an artist filled with boundless talent, ambition, and ideas. For the past decade and change, Butler and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire have roamed the surface of worlds most of us couldn't even dream up and have planted the Shabazz Palaces flag in the dirt.
Shabazz Palaces remain so far ahead of their time, somewhere on this terrestrial slab of rock called Earth, there are music fans still trying to parse the group's near-decade-old Sub Pop debut Black Up, reaching to find meaning in its parables and psalms, scrolling the cursor left to break down the breakdowns.
If Black Up was hip-hop's equivalent to Kid A -- a restless, fractured, visionary expansion of form -- the full-length authored by Shabazz nine years on serves as an entirely different statement. Black Up was lovingly referred to as experimental, in parts borderline unmusical, while The Don of Diamond Dreams (out April 17 via Sub Pop) continues the path forged on 2017's Quazarz Versus the Jealous Machines as the most sublimely tuneful work of the group's tenure moves into a new decade.
Single "Chocolate Soufflé" draws far back into the history of rap music, adopting woozy synth-funk perfect for rattling a roller rink floor right after Egyptian Lover on a satin-jacketed DJ's Friday night set. Lyrically, the song sits on the sort of fly talk Butler holds a sly mastery of; Nigerian space queens sing the chorus like a row of sirens as he catches mermaids with no hook. Purple smoke fills his lungs as his life is lived like red velvet cupcake; "I'm a movie, she wants a part."
But leave it to Butler to sneak incisive cultural commentary into a song about stealing your girl. The primary theme of the aforementioned Jealous Machines crops up here on "Chocolate Soufflé," as the central lyric of its first minute and a half goes, "My phone's really no that smart."
The now-eternal ode to fine-ass ladies everywhere, "Bad Bitch Walking," also slinks along a funk-laden groove somewhere beyond the stratosphere. Most of the song carries the reflective shimmer of neon lights while Butler observes a light blue aura radiating around the dark brown skin of a genius, a snake charmer. Over the indelible bassline taking up most of the latter half, Stas THEE Boss locks into a butter-smooth flow rife with internal rhyme schemes and resplendent imagery in the age-old practice of admiring a confident and mystical woman. Stas so frequently rattles off these deceptively dazzling bars it seems like rap lovers take her for granted because of the ease with which she delivers these masterful verses. Too few people outside the city regard her as one of the finest rappers dwelling Seattle over the past decade. Stas is arguably in the top three and unquestionably in the top five, if I can be allowed to indulge in rap nerd-style competitive ranking.
Late album stunner "Thanking the Girls" is a more nakedly heartfelt dedication to the women in Butler's life, in part a love song while its second verse is a letter to his daughters, the song shining bright with love, birth, death, the notion that nothing gold will stay, and of course, a deep well of gratitude. The few moving parts of its track come together in a way that sounds full while moving at a glacial pace, like R&B on Actavis cough syrup.
The mysterious Purple Tape Nate -- a soulful voice given a metallic cyborg sheen courtesy of the wonders of Autotune, moving through the world invisible outside of the universe of Shabazz Palaces -- appears in the single "Fast Learner," draped in Japanese fabrics and diamonds while waiting for the gates of heaven to open, apologizing to his friends who had to check in with Saint Peter a little too early.
Over the breezy funk track which possesses an aura akin to a hollowed-out Dam-Funk banger, Butler speaks on his prowess for pimp slapping beats, looking like he just stepped out of a woman's dreams, and practicing his money scooping technique, unconcerned with the fit of another man's pants. The song mostly serves as a showcase for Nate, whose appearances on Shabazz records provoke more questions than answers. Who is this man who sings hooks like a blade running descendant of Nate Dogg? Where are his people from? Does he sleep in a cryogenic chamber when he's not killing Shabazz features?
It's difficult to not get pulled into a conversation about rap with Butler if you ever get the pleasure of chatting with him. As a practitioner of hip-hop for over three decades (as well as a lover of the art form for much longer), a student of the game, he's always keeping his ears open for artists doing something fresh across all genres of music, but foremost the medium of rap. Parts of the music of Shabazz Palaces consist of Butler and Maraire conducting a conversation with rap music itself, reaching far back in its history and sometimes forward in order to pull inspiration and bring it back in the harvest of their own music.
"Wet" brings forth the notion of a dialogue with hip-hop by drawing on the minimalist bounce having been explored by a generation of Soundcloud avatars. This is not some naked reach for contemporary cool like so many rappers who reach middle age with their career intact (i.e. a forty-something-year-old Jay Z trying to sound larger than life over a thunderous Lex Luger beat); Bulter's coolness already feels like a mythological trait. No, "Wet" slots in perfectly with the explorations conducted under the Shabazz banner, synthesizing this modern iteration of hip-hop as naturally as their forays into spacey jazz and mbira bounce.
Even in consideration of intricate songcraft, flowing narratives, and lunar poetry, sometimes a rapper of Butler's legendary station in the genre just has to get on the mic and rap, and here his words move from brain to vocal cords in the service of kicking bars. Butler breathes diamonds over the submerged synth line, yawning at garden variety rappers and keeping his trademark cool facing down a brandished burner. He spits lines that are bound to be social media bios for fans throughout the year ("Bro, she love you, she's just using me for sex.")
A couple of brief ambient pieces serve as intros for the two sides of The Don of Diamond Dreams; the songs on the album are bookended by two tracks emblematic of the astral heights Butler and Maraire (along with longtime producer/unofficial third member Erik Blood) ascend toward. Opener "Ad Ventures" features twinkling keys and Butler flossing on the graveyard shift, flying through space and taking in mountainside waterfalls, while false prophets are getting benched by their girls in favor of the Palaceer. Closer "Reg Walks By the Looking Glass" is a seven-minute cooldown, a ride through a faraway landscape, with stars and moons big and bright over the horizon. Carlos Overall's saxophone weaves in the margins for most of the song's duration, creating a psychedelic jazz opus on par with the artists on Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label.
Through this long journey through different states of consciousness and emotion, Shabazz Palaces continue to serve as the intrepid explorers through the eternal form known as music. The don of diamond dreams and gold stitched jeans continues to shine his light on the path for all of us to follow.
On Double Take, KEXP's dynamic duo of Martin Douglas and Dusty Henry explore the great double-albums in history by each focusing on one part's musical, lyrical, and historic themes. First up are the parallel albums released by Shabazz Palaces on the same day in 2017: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Sta…
In this edition of Rewind, Martin Douglas explores Shabazz Palaces' odyssey-like sophomore album, which surveys its environment with more street savvy than the group is often given credit for.
Every Shabazz Palaces record feels like a transmission from a far-off planet. In 2017, the Seattle hip-hop duo took this aesthetic a step further with two records -- Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. The albums collectively chronicle the story of an alien sent t…