Shabazz Palaces Create Freewheeling Hip-Hop Surrealism on ‘The Don of Diamond Dreams’
If you combined the extraterrestrial, Afrofuturist conceits of Sun Ra with the neon pomp and swagger of funkadelic, the fantastical, street esoterica of Wu-Tang Clan with the freewheeling far-out wit of Flying Lotus, and threw in a generous helping of Animal Collective-esque psychedelic indie explorations, you would approach something similar to the enigma that is Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces. Emcee Ishmael Butler, formerly of hip-hop trio Digable Planets, and multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire sent a sorely needed shock to the hip-hop world with their hard-hitting, forward-thinking 2011 debut “Black Up.” They’ve followed a singular vision, refining and further realizing it with every successive release. Their latest offering, “The Don of Diamond Dreams” is the type of record sure to baffle all but the most devoted insiders of the most outre hip-hop. Simultaneously, it’s the type sure to impress and entertain sonically adventurous fans of virtually any music genre.
The album begins with, “Portal North: Pantera,” an eighteen second intro of a robotic greeting, over kaleidoscopic noise. Your guess is as good as anyone’s regarding what purpose exactly this serves and why it deserves a track of its own, but the fact that it has been designated as a full track should immediately give you a sense of what to expect on this album — completely unrestrained, whimsical artistic indulgence. The gritty, buzzing bass that has been a Shabazz staple since “Black Up” hits the speakers, and the first full track, “Ad Ventures,” takes off. Butler and Maraire have settled so comfortably into their far-out niche that they waste no energy this time around on luring the listener in, instead launching directly into scattered, deconstructed abstractions. Butler’s laidback flow comes double-tracked and slightly out of sync, giving a thrillingly disorienting feel. Gurgling noise, ethereal half washes, and video game effects form a soundscape that fades in and out of focus, with the rhythm dropping out intermittently for psychedelic filigree.
Resounding ‘80s snares, the throatiest of robot voices, and strangely space age, vintage synth sounds start off “Fast Learner,” picking up on Afro Futuristic aesthetics already teased. Purple Tate Nate drops vocals, perfectly complementing Butler’s energy, with equally quirky, cartoony, and colorful stylings. The sluggish drag stops and starts, shrouded in neon haze, Auto-tune echoes trailing off every which way. As usual, Butler’s lyrics are works of free association, hip-hop slang that defy interpretation. Consider, for example, “Royal radical in pics gripping snakes / Brawl tactical, my finger on your fate / In a menage, two queens drew an ace.” Right. With this level of absurdity, the lines between freestyle and composition are already beyond blurry, and grow even more so on “Wet.” The beat fits the title, relocating the alien urban universe visited in previous tracks to an aquatic base. Butler bubbles his way through dripping synth warbles, riffing on the cadences that have become ubiquitous in contemporary hip-hop, before devolving into unstructured underwater acrobatics, as fuzzy, chiseled guitar lines snake their way around him. It could hardly matter less what on earth he is saying, as the sound is truly out of this world.
There’s a camp humor to all of this, a variant of the same sort that permeates the work of artists like Thundercat, himself a collaborator of Shabazz’s. This becomes especially pronounced on tracks like “Chocolate Souffle,” in little details like the repetitions of “My phone’s really not that smart,” around which various elements floating in a chaotic cluster seem to find direction and purpose. The track is a boldly offbeat, funky escapade, with an insistent beat atop which Butler enters an unprecedentedly zen state of flow. This all transitions seamlessly into “Bad Bitch Walking,” which sounds like a lo fi, reverb-soaked reimagining of “Southerplayalisticadillacmuzic”-era Outkast. Guest rapper Stas THEE Boss lends a female voice to the mix, a welcome change in dynamics. At the end of her verse, her treated echoing enunciations trailing off amid wiggling wah-wahs makes for a surreal soundscape.
“Money Yoga” places New Age synths over sharp metallic percussive clanks and swishes. Butler settles into the groove, and takes it upon himself to announce “phase one” and “phase two,” as guest vocalist Darrius takes the mic, not to really sing as much as to feed off a vibe, going through the motions, bursting into a melody here and there, occasionally giving way to full Auto-tune falsetto surges. At the end, horns enter the mix, and it’s as if there never were a sound so comfortably festive. “Thanking the Girls,” brings yet another radical sonic experiment, decluttering the space to a minimal kick and snare stomp slowed to an unnatural pace, each thud setting off springs in the latest instalment of this wacky hip-hop obstacle course. Here, Butler gets more serious with his lyrics, taking an earnest moment to pay respect to all the women in his life, but presenting it in his usual terms of abstracted swag. Finally, “Reg Walks Through the Looking Glass” returns to an aquatic realm, and enlists Carlos Overall to sing, “Watching stars falling fast / I broke the looking glass” over a haze of treated saxophone and silly synths. At this point, the lyrics require no explanation, as the sound has already gone beyond driving the point home.
It’s safe to say that hip-hop generally suffers from more creative inertia than other contemporary musical genres. The innovators are few and far between, and often aren’t even innovators as much as revivalists or crossover artists. While Shabazz Palaces certainty cross genres, effectively inhabiting a sonic realm without borders, they clearly present themselves in terms of hip-hop parameters. As such, they cram enough madcap experimentation into a single record to make up for myriad generic rap releases. “The Don of Diamond Dreams” is music for a niche audience, and will be most appreciated by connoisseurs who can pick out its disparate references. On the other hand, it has broad appeal by virtue of its sheer creativity. This is outsider art of the most frivolous sort, bound by no practical constraints, dictates of propriety, or stylistic reservations. With their free, fluid hip-hop abstractions, Shabazz Palaces are leading the way into the future.
“The Don of Diamond Dreams” is available April 17 on Apple Music