Sup Pop rap group Shabazz Palaces follow up their 2014 album Lese Majesty with not one, but two new albums, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. Miles Bowe orbits their psychedelic-rap planet to see how this double release measures up.
Since their 2011 debut Black Up, Shabazz Palaces have been masters of their own dimension. Rapper Ishmael Butler (masquerading under the name Palaceer Lazaro) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire – originally backed up by a crew of Seattle’s best, including Thee Satisfaction and Erik Blood – made heady incense from a potion of rap, jazz and funk. Butler could land eye-stinging barbs with brushing-his-shoulder cool (“Don’t compare my beat with his / He ain’t up off these streets, he’s slid” on the epic intro ‘Free Press And Curl’), but don’t let his sneering fool you – the material world rarely seems to shake him.
With the release of two new albums – Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines – Shabazz Palaces are examining rap’s big picture. But it’s not like Jay-Z’s life lesson-laden, mumble rap-denouncing 4:44; Shabazz are far-out enough to truly take in the full scope. But like all things involving Butler — who is now going by “Quazarz, son of Barbara Dream Caster and Reginald The Dark Hoper, he who rides on light, dreamer of the seventh dream and kissed eternal by Awet the Sun Scented” — it’s not so simple. They have left their heady orbit and crash-landed on Earth.
There’s a playful bounce to the tech-anxiety of ‘Gorgeous Sleeper Cell’ as Quazarz sees his phone as a “glowing phantom limb” and multiplying passwords leave him reaching for a gun. ‘Self-Made Follownaire’ and highlight ‘30 Clip Extension’ having fun examining rap’s gilded mainstream in a string of contradictions from “self-loathing narcissists” to “soulless soul singers”. Butler describes “your favorite rapper” as having “his jaws clinched in a Xanax glow”. Even as though eschewing the Molly-and-Perkies set, it is only natural that in 2017 that one of rap’s greatest mystics and one of its most notorious pill-poppers would both reaffirm their legacy with sweeping back-to-back albums.
Shabazz Palaces come off like Toejam & Earl: aliens bemused by this warped caricature world as they quickly look for a planet with way more chill.
The album succeeds most when it’s reflective and reflexive, lifting up the heavier moments. ‘Shine A Light’ weaves a tumbling Dee Dee Sharp loop more hypnotically than Madlib, while the penultimate rave-up ‘Moon Whip Quäz’ hijacks Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ until the duo seem to ride right off this crazy planet.
Rather than the travelers in The Man Who Fell To Earth or Sun Ra’s Space Is The Place, Butler and Maraire come off more like Toejam & Earl: aliens bemused by this warped caricature world as they quickly look for a planet with way more chill. As always, the primary focus is on maintaining a vibe (aided beautifully by basslines from Thundercat) with commentary drifting organically from the psychedelic haze.
‘Love In The Time Of Kanye’ might seem like one of the goofier tracks from its title, but instead finds Butler questioning his earlier claim that he “couldn’t follow the crowds, too smart”: he questions his own strengths and insecurities harder than any pop or tech trend. “Quit while I’m ahead / risking my behind / Where the next step lead / I’m moving sideways I can’t read the signs,” he raps on the song’s first verse.
That track’s gorgeous melody offers its own reflective edge to Jealous Machines’ technological ruminations and it’s significance doubles when reprised on Gangster Star’s closing ‘Federalist Papers’.
It recognizes the phones we all carry are just as much mirrors as as they are cameras. It may be the way we all view the world now, but, with these two albums, Shabazz Palaces shows their perspective is one-of-a-kind, whether they are talking landscapes or selfies.