We here at the Tome are not exactly hip-hop connoisseurs. The fact that we have to dip back into 2009 to at least find one hip-hop album (besides Denver’s Pirate Signal) to review is evidence enough of that. But what we have here is more than worthy of backtracking for. Shabazz Palaces is the newest musical vehicle for the enigmatic Palaceer Lazaro (AKA Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler) from 90’s alternative-rap group Digable Planets. One spin through “Of Light” makes it evident that Butler has fully retreated from the smooth, almost painfully light, Bo-Ho chill of Digable Planets and is treading some murkier, downright grizzlier, waters with Shabazz Palaces.
While I am no hip-hop expert by any means, I am literally inundated by radio top-40 hip-hop during my 9-5. My day job (the one where I’m not writing music reviews) is working with homeless and at risk youth. There is hardly a time when the radio is not blaring Eminem or B.O.B. at some ungodly volume from the bathroom where a client is showering. With this much exposure I have largely internalized the rap song structure. 16 bars, chorus, 16 bars, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus….outro…killmenow. Shabazz Palaces is refreshingly non-linear in his raps, rhyming on a deliciously off-kilter beat mostly sans chorus. Lazaro’s sing-song rhythmic cadence often rhymes without much spatial awareness to what is happening underneath and around his lazer-beam focus of flow. Choruses are used sparingly, placing the attention on Lazaro’s gruff, sometimes menacing voice. Muscular beats range from scuzzy noise-loops with a gargantuan low end, to breezier Dig Plan-like cuts, to absolutely blown out, dirty dubstep as on “Church.”
Lyrically Lazaro/Butler strays from the positivism and socially conscious (I know..I know..) content of earlier works with the Planets, steering into some gloomier territory full of free-associations and a general feeling of disdain for Seattle’s embattled Police Department and the city’s involuntarily pushed-underground rap scene. Local politics seem to inform Lazaro’s insular rhymesaying more than any sort of universal statement. Lazaro is not an established veteran clucking tongues at foolish actions of a younger generation. He’s neck deep in separation anxiety. His busy, gutted tracks suggest he is flailing from inside the inherent contradictions of hip-hop instead of hurling insults from the sidelines. Those who are wont to swim in deep waters…
With no MySpace page, limited press interaction and a general sense of reluctance to engage with the public beyond the group’s music itself, Shabazz Palaces is determined to make it on their own accord. Just forget that I told you this is from the same guy who did “Cool Like Dat.” With as much mystery shrouding the Shabazz Palaces guise, there is enough here to warrant the steady buzz surrounding the enigmatic butterfly and his reemergence in the world of fringe-dwelling hip-hop acts.