Shabazz Palaces: Black Up – review

(Sub Pop)

In January 2010 a guy called Rich Jensen (@richjensen) sent out a cryptic tweet. "Somebody has to say it: Neumos Friday felt like OK Hotel (April 17, '91) when an Aberdeen trio first dropped a song about teen deodorant."

It's worth translating. The Seattle gig Jensen had witnessed the previous Friday, at a venue called Neumos, was like seeing Nirvana on the cusp of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". The band in question? A shadowy new hip-hop outfit called Shabazz Palaces.

Even within the realms of pop hyperbole, Jensen's was quite a tweet. So it's worth noting that Jensen is the former general manager of Sub Pop, crucible of grunge, and that the debut album by Shabazz Palaces, Black Up, is the first ever hip-hop release on Sub Pop. You could easily argue Jensen was still working overtime for the label.

But he nailed the feeling that Shabazz Palaces were something extraordinary. SP had been amassing an intermittent, staticky online buzz, thanks to their cutting-edge sounds, collated into two previous mini-albums. Also among their works: the soundtrack for a film about glue sniffing in Kenya.

Theirs, clearly, were not the bratty effusions of fellow west coast talking points Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, whose notoriety was building around the same time. Rather, Shabazz Palaces were making compelling, left-field hip-hop that had much in common with UK dubstep or the digital soundscapes of Radiohead favourites Flying Lotus.

This enthralling album's first track, "Free Press and Curl", opens with oscillations andrattling handclaps, before a serious worm of a bassline drops. Throughout, Black Up's production is stark and uneasy; tinged with jazz, but coloured principally by the dystopian corners of urban bass music. And once it gets hold of you, it doesn't let go. Every track is lean and muscular, never losing sight of the fact that hip-hop should writhe inexorably forward.

The allure of this sonically startling outfit only deepens with the knowledge that Shabazz Palaces' main man – Palaceer Lazaro – is really Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, who once formed a third of Grammy-toting, 90s Daisy Age hip-hop crew Digable Planets.

There are little tendrils here, working their way sideways towards Erykah Badu's magnificently bonkers nu roots music, or the abstracted sound art of Gonjasufi (allegedly Butler's cousin). But Black Up remains a hip-hop record, with Butler's off-the-cuff rhymes ("I run on feelings/Fuck your facts", from "Free Press and Curl") alternating with more abstruse meditations. Often, as on "An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum", Shabazz's works recall the nihilist production that the Neptunes provided for Clipse on their crack-hop opus, Hell Hath No Fury. A few bars in, though, the arrival of an unexpected kalimba line really knocks you sideways.

Shabazz Palaces, then, are hardly the hip-hop Nirvana and Black Up is no Nevermind. This album will not destroy all before it. But it will knock trinkets off your shelves with its sub-bass wobble and titillate those parts that conventional hip-hop doesn't reach.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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