Shabazz Palaces: Quazars review – finds the sweet spot between weird and direct | Alexis Petridis' album of the week

The Seattle rap duo stay weird without losing their edge, with two concept albums about a visitor from space – Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs the Jealous Machines

In years to come, when the career of the Seattle rap duo Shabazz Palaces is viewed through a historical lens, it may well be opined that these third and fourth albums were substantially more straightforward, even more commercial, than their predecessor, 2014’s Lese Majesty. Said opinion would be correct, although it’s worth noting that these two interlinking conceptual works about an alien called Quazarz (“a sentient being from somewhere else, an observer sent here to Amurderca to chronicle and explore as a musical emissary”, explains the accompanying blurb) involve muffled, lo-fi instrumentals; tracks that sound like several entirely unconnected pieces of music spliced together; and at least one song on which the rapping appears to be in a different time signature to the backing track. Among a panoply of obscure special guests is the Shogun Shot, who raps with a pronounced lisp, and a man who calls himself Fly Guy Dai, a name that carries the suggestion, alas unfounded, that he might be from Aberystwyth.

So a judgment on the relative commerciality of these albums tells you rather more about how wilfully abstruse the music on Lese Majesty was, than about the potential of Quazarz: Born On a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs the Jealous Machines to unseat Ed Sheeran from the top of the album charts.

But while these two new albums are audibly still a product of the complex musical path down which frontman Ishmael Butler took his first, tentative steps with his old mob, the jazz rappers Digable Planets, when they released their knotty second album Blowout Comb in 1994,they are also audibly more approachable than anything Shabazz Palaces have previously done. Lese Majesty was a hip-hop album akin to the late-60s work of Captain Beefheart: a panoply of original ideas arranged as a series of jarring musical non-sequiturs, at turns fascinating, breathtaking and a little exasperating.

Moments fitting that description are still in evidence on both Quazarz: Born On a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs the Jealous Machines – the scattered chaos of Sabonim in the Saab on ’Em; the jarring rhythmic clashes on Parallax – but they are separated by moments when Shabazz Palaces hit a sweet spot between weirdness and something more direct and comprehensible. Echo-drenched orchestral samples and beautiful vocals leave Born on a Gangster Star’s Shine a Light sounding like a psychedelicised take on opulent 70s soft soul. And with its Kraftwerk-y synth line, Moon Whip Quäz offers a warped version of early 80s electro funk and features an ear-snagging hookline – something you were no more likely to find on Lese Majesty than a guest appearance by Ronan Keating.

The music on Quazarz vs The Jealous Machines frequently sounds less like the hip-hop equivalent of Trout Mask Replica than it does a rap version of the hypnagogic pop made by Ariel Pink and James Ferraro: lo-fi, woozy, made on outmoded equipment and suffused with faded memories of music past. The rhythm tracks often involve a drum machine that may well predate hip-hop itself, and sounds remarkably like the one that ticks mournfully in the background of Timmy Thomas’s 1973 hit Why Can’t We Live Together? The music is frequently fantastic, as on the shambolically lovely Effeminence or the groggy, oddly menacing slow jam Late Night Phone Calls. Moreover, it fits the lyrics.

Exactly what the plot involving Quazarz the alien is remains a mystery – as is traditional with concept albums of any genre, it’s almost impossible to work out what’s going on – and what it has to say about the current political situation in “Amurderca” is a little opaque. It’s fairly safe to say it’s not offering a hearty endorsement of the Trump administration, though, and there’s a terrible, mercifully brief moment where we seem to be veering towards wake-up-sheeple territory involving the Illuminati.

The album saves its most striking lyrics for tackling social media – a smartphone is a “glowing phantom limb” – and the state of mainstream hip-hop. 30 Clip Extension offers both a lengthy excoriation of rappers who use ghostwriters and a brilliant pen-portrait of a drugged-out but Instagram-savvy superstar, “his jaws clenched in a Xanax glow … fashioned by some unseen hand … a chauvinist with feminine vanities”.

It’s one of the moments during which these two albums hit home with unexpected directness. Butler and his musical partner Tendai Maraire would doubtless balk at the idea of making music that’s in any way commercial – that’s clearly not what Shabazz Palaces set out to do. But the power of Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs the Jealous Machines comes from the way they spike their dense, abstract sound with moments of accessibility: a band broadening what they do without blunting their edge or losing their uniqueness.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty review – spectacular, way-out hip-hop

Alexis Petridis: Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire's music seems totally without precedent, and even if sometimes it's just too weird to enjoy, more often it's genuinely thrilling

Alexis Petridis

24, Jul, 2014 @1:59 PM

Article image
Shabazz Palaces: The Don of Diamond Dreams – alchemy in a world of algorithms
Divided between familiar territories and intangible unknowns, Ishmael Butler proves fascinatingly elusive on this uneven record

Tayyab Amin

16, Apr, 2020 @1:00 PM

Article image
Dizzee Rascal: Raskit review – the grime kingpin reclaims his crown
Returning to a pop world in which the music he pioneered is huge, Dizzee has gone back to basics with a stripped-down album that shows off his lyrical skills

Alexis Petridis

20, Jul, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Miley, Morrissey and Marnie the opera: the essential pop, classical and jazz for autumn 2017
Liam goes for broke, St Vincent bounces back, Nico Muhly gets Hitchcockian, Taylor Swift defends her reputation, and Peggy Seeger pens her memoirs

Alexis Petridis, Andrew Clements, John Fordham and Robin Denselow

13, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
'We feel like aliens': Shabazz Palaces, the hip-hop duo beamed in from another planet
Following a pair of futuristic concept albums, rap’s oddest group talk about the rise of the robots, their Sub Pop mentality and feeling like outsiders in Trump’s America

Lanre Bakare

09, Aug, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Horrors: V review – spindly indie survivors hit their sweet spot
Against the odds, the Horrors’ fifth album is their best yet, with Faris Badwan’s commanding, world-weary vocals adding to the synthesised thrills and sparkling guitar-pop

Alexis Petridis

21, Sep, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Kendrick Lamar: Damn review – more mellow but just as angry
Luscious harmonies and hints of psychedelic soul – plus guest support from Bono and Rihanna – couch brilliant, sharp-edged storytelling from an artist at the top of his game

Alexis Petridis

14, Apr, 2017 @12:34 PM

Article image
New band of the day – Shabazz Palaces (No 1,025)
This rap veteran is bringing hip-hop to Sub Pop with an album of dark Odd Future-istic anthems

Paul Lester

18, May, 2011 @4:05 PM

Article image
NERD: No_One Ever Really Dies review – Pharrell's band finally find their groove
Urgent, harsh, but also consistent – come album five, NERD have made the starry collaborations stick, galvanised by US politics. Even Ed Sheeran sounds cool

Alexis Petridis

14, Dec, 2017 @12:25 PM

Article image
Rejjie Snow: Dear Annie review - Irish rapper's loverman reinvention
Though it’s hard to hear his Dublin roots on this long-awaited debut, Snow’s conversion to soft-voiced Brooklyn seducer is convincing and stylish

Alexis Petridis

15, Feb, 2018 @3:00 PM