First Listen

First Listen: Shabazz Palaces, 'Black Up'

Ishmael Butler, alumnus of Digable Planets and leader of Shabazz Palaces. i i

hide captionIshmael Butler, alumnus of Digable Planets and leader of Shabazz Palaces.

Courtesy of the artist
Ishmael Butler, alumnus of Digable Planets and leader of Shabazz Palaces.

Ishmael Butler, alumnus of Digable Planets and leader of Shabazz Palaces.

Courtesy of the artist

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Shabazz Palaces emerged out of the ether, or at least that's what group leader Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler would have you believe. The former Digable Planets MC originally operated under a veil of secrecy, taking the alias Palaceer Lazaro, declining interviews and performing behind a head scarf and sunglasses. After self-releasing two critically lauded mini-albums in 2009, Butler has loosened the grips on his anonymity.

Still, two years later, it's hard to find information on Shabazz Palaces. Butler won't name anyone else who's involved in the group. The only guest vocalist listed on the album is THEESatisfaction. There's no Shabazz Palaces MySpace page, and the group's website offers little more than tour dates and an online store. Butler seems dead-set on having listeners focus on the music rather than the persona behind it — and that's a good way to approach Black Up.

Out June 28, Black Up is a sonic world made up of discordant beats, swirling synths, bouncing 808s and Butler's nimble, impressionistic poetry. Straight narratives are nowhere to be found, and rhythms emerge and then vanish just as quickly. The effect can be bewildering, and yet the album is far from unfocused. Butler's rhymes are lyrical and tight in the opening track, "Free Press and Curl," where he offers an ostensible mission statement: "I run on feelings, f—- your facts / Deception is the truest act."

But there's more here than avant-rap experimentation. In "Recollections of the Wraith" and "Endeavors for Never," melodic female vocals float into the spaces between the unpredictable beats. It's a welcome break from Butler's tinny delivery, and it gives a warm, accessible touch to the tough-talking, hard-headed raps.

It makes sense that the album's last line is "Still it morphs, this s—- is way too advanced." If Butler's mission on Black Up is to create something intentionally out of order, he's done just that. It's a dissonant listening experience, but it's richly rewarding, revealing something new with each spin.

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First Listen