Shabazz Palaces Strike Twice

Photo by Victoria Kovios

Remember when nobody knew who Shabazz Palaces was? I don’t mean before the band was famous; I mean when the band was literally anonymous. In 2009 their first two EPs showed up at Retail Therapy—an artsy boutique on Capitol Hill in Seattle—with no announcement and no album credits, just cardboard CD sleeves emblazoned with embroidered patches. At that point the project was purely speculative: The voice on Shabazz Palaces and Of Light definitely sounded like Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, formerly of beloved ’90s rap act Digable Planets. But few at the time knew Butler had been born and raised in Seattle, or that he’d returned home from Brooklyn in the early ’00s, or that he’d long been incubating this dazzling, unprecedented rebirth.

Back then nothing about the band was certain and Butler liked it that way. He granted few interviews and sidestepped press and social media. He and musical partner Tendai Maraire appeared in promotional photos with their backs to the camera. When they performed their first-ever concert at Neumos in 2010, they hid their faces behind kafiyas and stunner shades. They were real, sure, and also more than real—they were already legend, directing focus toward the music, not the people behind it.

Seven years later, the people and the legend are one and the same. In the wake of two full-length albums released on Sub Pop, Butler and Maraire toured the world, were hand-picked to open for Radiohead and My Morning Jacket, collaborated with George Clinton and Flying Lotus and appeared in acclaimed music videos and short films and on the cover of magazines (including this one). They’ve been anointed as visionaries on the bleeding edge of pop culture—blown up, dissected and celebrated by the global underground. They are known.

What do they do with that status? They make the most revelatory, indulgent move available to pop musicians and release a double album. Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz Vs. the Jealous Machines comprise the longest and closest look Shabazz has given its fans. At 79 total minutes and 23 songs, there’s a lot of riches to sift through, and all of it further refines Shabazz’s eternal principles: belief in intuition and the power of self, skepticism in just about everything else.

Press materials for Quazarz and Jealous Machines describe not a double album per se but separate volumes of a conjoined story of sorts: “Monozygotic twins.” Binding them is a storyline that involves an alien, Quazarz, observing present-day life on earth. But whether we call him Quazarz or Palaceer Lazaro or Butterfly, the observer is Butler, and this degree of subjective scrutiny is not new or specific to this double album. Capitalism, consumerism, materialism, obsession with technology, the elevation of image over substance—these have always been the subjects of Butler’s laser-like gaze. By couching them in a loose storyline, Butler perhaps most succinctly contextualizes his point of view and yields some of the most brilliant moments of the ongoing Shabazz experiment.

Shabazz has always been defined as much by Butler’s lyricism as their inimitable approach to production, and while lyrically Quazarz is the looser and more abstract of the pair, it contains some of the most compelling sound design in the band’s history. Credit Butler’s longtime partnership with producer Erik Blood: They build inscrutable sonic sculpture from live instruments, MPC and drum machines, creating a holographic space for Butler’s ideas to occupy. Every sound is pretty much invented fresh to suit its particular purpose, adding never-seen-before colors for the band’s sonic palette. Backwards masking, pitch shifting, overdubbed overdubs; the sound of alien mating calls, geologic pulse, extra-sensory introspection, ghostly intervention. Butler electronically alters his voice from robotic to angelic, from assertive demand to sensual coo. It’s all really hard to describe, which is part of what makes it such a joy to listen to.

Quazarz also contains one of the set’s most concise highlights. “Shine a Light” was the first single released and stands as one of Shabazz’s most conventional—and memorable—songs to date. It’s constructed almost entirely of a sample of “I Really Love You,” a jaunty, strings-laden 1965 R&B ballad by Philly soul singer Dee Dee Sharp. Whether selected by Blood or Butler, never before has Shabazz leaned so heavily on a sample or sounded so willfully nostalgic. It’s a gorgeous, celestial mood, bittersweet and soulful. The hook comes courtesy Thadillac, aka longtime collaborator Thaddeus Turner, who croons, “Shine a light on the fake this way my peeps can have it all.” Later, on “Moon Whip Quäz (feat. Darrius),” Darrius Willrich, another longtime Shabazz associate, appears to close out the album with his powerhouse vocals a song that finds the crew joking around in the studio over an electro-inflected, roller skating beat—some of the lightest levity they’ve ever recorded. With its refrain of “Quazarz born on a gangster star,” the song reads like an introduction to the character who comes into full form on the next volume.

Vs. the Jealous Machines was apparently recorded first, over a longer period of time, with LA-based producer Sunny Levine (his first collaboration with Shabazz to my knowledge, instigated by his work with Ariel Pink). Butler arrives and immediately gives the Quazarz mission statement: “I’m from the United States of Amurderca/We post-language/We talk with guns/Guns keep us safe/We don’t imagine past the image, you know us.” Top to bottom, song after song, Vs. is more linear and lyrically coherent than Quazarz, studded with lyrical gems: “My thumbs think for themselves.” “Your feast has ended.” “Feudalist guilds upload holy wars for a fascist jihad with hashtags.” “These are the times/Wrecking the world was the best days of our lives.” The litany of fruits that Butler sings in “Julian’s Dream (Ode to a Bad)” is the sexiest shopping list of all time:

Peaches are the greatest
Plums just my favorite
Grapes on my playlist
Honeydew that’s the latest
Cherries I’ll just wait for it
Blackberries well they ace it
Mangos going places
Watermelon they just taste rich
Lychee licks are greatness
Apples I’m insatiable
Nungu I just can’t skip
Guava like vacation
Nectarines it’s a safe bet
Kiwi wins the taste test
Pineapple make my tongue wet
Starfruit til there’s none left

Just as Quazarz is tentpoled by “Shine a Light,” Vs. centers on “Effemenence,” a song that harkens back to “Are you… Can you…Were You? (Felt)”—aka “It’s a Feeling”—from 2011’s Black Up. At almost six minutes, it’s the longest and most substantive track on either album, bursting with musical ideas like some kind of self-sustaining bouquet or a symphony cycling through multiple dimensions. First off, the title alone is poetry wrought from a single portmanteau. Then the refrain, delivered alternately by Butler and Maraire: “Life blows my way/Talking bout my love for the ladies/Life blows I sway/Talking bout my love for the ladies.” Lest anyone mistake the intent of Butler’s affections, he shouts out his mom. Musically, it’s a psychic breeze, summertime for the soul. The song is an all-time Shabazz classic and one of the most mesmerizing pieces of music of 2017. The rest of Vs. lives up to the standard it sets.

It’s so easy to get excited by what these guys do! Especially with twice the music available, the seeming effortlessness of it all, the apparent coolness, the ambitious imagination and elegant execution—it’s a lot to fathom. (There’s reportedly a Quazarz comic book coming in August, too.) As I’ve said before, Butler is a genre unto himself, like Prince and Bjork and FlyLo and Clinton. His steps along his musical path have been few, but they’ve been consequential. Releasing a double album dilutes some of that consequence by giving listeners more than they expect, an effusiveness that he’s thus far withheld. Of the two Vs. is the stronger record, but he’s not lacking in things to say, or ways to say them, on either. And perhaps Butler sees his influence on a new generation of Seattle musicians, on a hip-hop scene that’s intent on experimentation but lacking in formal education. We’ve grown to know him as much as we know his music. These albums are a deep and prolonged exposure to both his mastery of fundamentals and genius at innovation.