Underground rap's album of the summer by veteran MC Ishmael Butler is a well-crafted, tar-thick work.
You could make a great case for 2011 being hip hop’s punk moment, its ’77 – the year when the genre enters middle age, and after years of stagnation, is rebooted by fans of the form who hold little-to-no regard for its current mores and recent history. Naturally, this argument is over-simple, and a little patronising, but most of the rap releases that have excited me this year have been marked by their rejection of rap’s narratives, from Drake and Wiz Khalifa’s anti-bluster to Waka Flocka Flame’s anti-poetry, Odd Future’s patricidal #FuckEverything Super-Soaker nihilism, to Clams Casino’s overt rejection of crate-digging cliche. Even the resurgence of posse-cuts by the superstars, from I’m On One to ‘Watch the Throne’, feels excitingly beef-deading.
In this context, Shabazz Palaces’s ‘Black Up’ is a pretty interesting record, in it’s one of the summer’s most striking rap records, and it recalls nothing so much as 90s underground rap. Unsurprisingly, it’s made by Ishmael Butler, who cut his teeth in backpack-royalty Digable Planets. Soaked in the dense, jazzy textures so beloved of the Anticon and DefJux stable, songs cram samples, skittering drums and stream-of-consciousness lyrics on top of each other. It’s an admirably hard-to-get record, unafraid of complexity and depth, and one that demands close listening to pull apart the tar-sticky textures. That’s not always a fun process, but it’s often a rewarding one.
What saves it from the morass of easy-to-admire, dull-on-the-ear rap records released self-consciously under-the-radar (the cover-art is blank, the lyrics are oblique, the credits are unknown) is the sheer craft of the production. It’s hard to disentangle tracks, forming a thick stew of sound, but there are some astonishing moments, as when the mechanical bounce of An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum gives way halfway through to a spectral gamelan line, or the hazy wash of The King’s New Clothes Were Made By His Own Hands swirl round delicate keys.
“Faint now, but somehow clearer / somehow growing on your mind”, Shabazz rolls out as the aforementioned track drops out, and it’s that “somehow” which is the lynchpin of this album. ‘Black Up’ is doing something very clever. Not as clever as its songtitles suggest, not clever enough to really take us anywhere new, but, somehow, anyhow, it’s a great listen from a talented artist unafraid to stand outside of history.