Album Review: Shabazz Palaces – The Don of Diamond Dreams

[Sub Pop; 2020]

Shabazz Palaces often sound like they’re trying to be futuristic while also remain rooted in tradition. It’s like the rap equivalent of steampunk. Their first and still best album Black Up was an achievement because Ishmael Butler and producer Tendai Maraire didn’t feel so plagued by the self-awareness that has been evident in their work ever since, where it seems like they’re working towards what a Shabazz Palaces album is “supposed to” sound like.

This hasn’t wrecked any of their subsequent releases, and you could shuffle their discography without any track coming across as a blatant betrayal of their talents. The worst you could say is that they peaked early, but that doesn’t mean a calamitous drop-off followed. Lots of their original zeal can be found in Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, the second in their couplet of 2017 albums.

The Don Of Diamond Dreams doesn’t represent some kind of point of no return, but it has enough stumbles to warrant concern. For this album, Butler took inspiration from the new wave of hip-hop, particularly his son, emo rapper Lil Tracy. However, it falters by displaying another sort of self-awareness: wanting to be laid back and fun while also proving it’s being made by people who care about Real Art.

It’s too bad, because early on in the album they actually manage to pull off this contrasting combination of ideas. The first proper track, “Ad Ventures”, is the best. Its instrumental balances the celestial and the earthbound between its twinkling and rumbling synths. Butler also achieves equilibrium with immediate contrasts between the meaningful and materialistic through lines like, “I float down waterfalls and fountains / Made a dream inside a Cash App.” Every drum roll feels like it’s bringing you closer to a world of privilege that bears the major consequence of having everything you want but knowing it’s not enough.

The promise of “Ad Ventures” is then squandered by a run of tracks that are either interesting only on a theoretical level or grate because of how Butler sells himself short, especially compared to the creativity of the new breed of rappers. “Wet” bears the hook “I just like the water ’cause it’s wet,” delivered with teleprompter-level dryness. There’s something contemptuous about it, like he’s so above this that he doesn’t need to actually try.

At times, Butler’s lyrics actually work pretty well under these new conditions; it’s the delivery that creates a problem. “Chocolate Souffle” wastes wish-fulfillment lines like “Your girl keep calling me ‘Bae’ / tipped a stack to the gondolier then cruise the Champs-Elysees like I’m Maurice Chevalier” on a spoken-word flow and a beat that’s too warped to feel like anything but a distraction. The production, handled by Butler, is the one consistent strength of The Don Of Diamond Dreams, but there aren’t enough tracks like “Money Yoga”, where the hazy production covers up the purposeful lack of lyrical direction. 

That track is sandwiched between the two clear duds of the album: “Bad Bitch Walking” and “Thanking The Girls”. The first encapsulates the aforementioned problem of the album trying to be smart while also being airy. Yes, those can co-exist, but the tedium of its six-minute runtime is emphasised by drab verses by both Butler and his guest Stas THEE Boss.

“Thanking The Girls” ups the earnestness, but not the interest levels. It’s hard to condemn a tribute to the women in Butler’s life, such as his daughters, but the lyrics are too bland to have depth and his delivery is too static to resonate.

Weirdly enough, the song that comes closest to totally working besides the opener is the biggest outlier on the album. “Reg Walks By The Looking Glass” is a seven-minute psychedelic soul number showcasing the vocal and instrumental talents of saxophonist Carlos Overall. It doesn’t nail its exit thanks to a corny vocoder outro, but at least after a long stretch of missed opportunities and shoddy decision-making, Shabazz Palaces finish the album with a track that shows they still have something new to offer. What hurts The Don Of Diamond Dreams is how they get ahead of themselves with minimal regard to where they’re going.