Hip hop began as a reaction to the insipid, glossed-over disco that dominated radio in the ’70s. The new music was raw, real, and unconventional in form. Mainstream acceptance has gradually filtered out these characteristics, leaving behind little more than a laughable display of megalomania, vulgarity, and buffoonery. While even the most commercial strain of hip hop is hard not to enjoy, one is forced to either painstakingly ignore the music’s innate stupidity, or to indulge it with a healthy dose of hipster irony. While there are gems to be found underground, much of indie hip hop comes off as overly defensive and serious, in effect, contradicting the light-hearted nature of the art form. Moreover, much of the hip hop that critics describe as innovative, actually explores little new sonic territory, instead merely excavating sounds from the early and mid ‘90s. It’s about time that an artist truly pushed the sound of hip hop, while retaining hard beats, swagger, and a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. Enter Shabazz Palaces.
In opener “Free Press and Curl,” emcee Ishmael Butler succinctly and accurately describes his style as “catchy, yes, but trendy, no.” The music hits hard throughout the album, and is guaranteed to keep heads nodding and bodies dancing. Remarkably, it achieves this while constantly sounding new and experimental. Dubstep, which could never have existed without hip hop, has been diplomatically reunited with its father genre. Throbbing, dirty bass is a prominent feature of virtually every song. Butler drops his lyrics with a sluggish swagger, and delivers his lyrics with the same slight, intended sloppiness that punk rock bands use to define their style. Multilayered vocals, usually cloaked in reverb, are sometimes pitch-shifted or distorted, lending the music a loose, trippy vibe.
Elements from various styles and eras of hip hop are blended skillfully throughout the record. The choppy, jazzy, playful sound in “The King’s New Clothes Were Made By His Own Hands,” is reminiscent of The Pharcyde, while the thrilling, chaotic, shifting nature of every beat recalls the recent work of El-p. Sample-based beats, some with slightly discordant loops, provide an old-school feel. Sharp snares and synths equip the music with the punchiness of crunk. In “Youlogy,” a hazy, mutilated soundscape segues into ‘90s horn samples and an early De La Soul-esque hook, in the same way that jazz musicians often slickly drop a phrase from an earlier era. Jazz elements are prominent in many songs, most noticeably “Endeavors for Never,” in which guest vocalist Cat Satisfaction sings gorgeously.
Whereas hip hop beats typically stay relatively constant throughout a track, Shabazz Palaces’ beats typically change drastically in mid-song. It’s a more immediate and accessible version of the free-form approach employed by producers such as Prefuse 73. With impulsive structures, and abounding glitches and drones, the music deserves to be classified as “trip hop.” What sets it apart from the rest of that genre is that it contains actual rapping. Moreover, the emcee sounds like an actual rapper. Indie acts that embrace “positive rap” often come across sounding like a failed attempt, by a guidance counselor in an inner city school, to relate to kids. Such rappers might justifiably fall among the various targets of Butler’s tirade “Yeah You,” in which he charges “You corny, nigga!” One of the most appealing qualities of Black Up is that it is not corny, but raw and edgy, even though it promotes a positive message. The album concludes by addressing the subject of its title, as voices repeat “Black is you, black is me, black is us, black is free.” Hip hop – an originally and predominately black form of music – is being lifted above the minstrel-show status that it acquired in recent years. Shabazz Palaces have pushed the music forward, so that it once again can be raw, real, and unconventional.
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