If this is a hip-hop album -- and that's a big "if" -- then it's the finest one yet this year.
Ishmael Butler can be a bit confusing. He was once part of Digible Planets, but now -- as the front man for Shabazz Palaces -- he prefers to go by Palaceer Lazaro and act as a sort of man behind the curtain. If this shift in persona seems unnecessary, even tedious, from a performer that's been around as long as Butler has, the slippery nature of identity it presents gives us a great frame for the equally slippery music on Black Up. Listening to this record, you can hear loose ties to Digible Planets, but can we really say this is the same Butler who gave us Blowout Comb? And if he's not -- as his shift in names suggests -- then what is this new Butler, this Lazaro, giving us?
The answer to that question is a difficult one, but it is also what makes this album so endlessly fascinating. It doesn't frustrate with its difficulties so much as it pushes us to ask questions about some of our deeply ingrained assumptions about music. Butler is certainly rapping here, so you'd be inclined to call this hip-hop. Trouble is, Black Up sounds nothing like any other hip-hop record around, and often borrows from ambient music, electronica, jazz, drone, and so on. These songs are glitchy and complicated, dark and spacious even as parts get cut off into tense shards of sound.
Then again, you also have to wonder if you can call these individual songs. Even as you're struggling with the sonics of this record, with what to call this sound (in the same way Butler wonders over what to call himself as he's making it), you also have to wonder about what makes a song, and how many different ways one can be assembled. When do songs become movements, and how can we shape and structure those movements within an album? The wormy song titles here -- "A treatise dedicated to the Avian Airess from North Eastern Nubi (1000 questions, I answer)", for example -- are impossible to remember and, in some cases, don't seem to bare a clear connection to Butler's wordplay in the song. Not only that, but the songs themselves often shift on a dime. No, shift isn't the right word. They stop, and then reboot as something completely different, and if you weren't bound by the titles on the track list, you'd swear it was a new song, but you'd be wrong. "Youology" starts as a crowded, shuffling beat, with Butler's chrome-treated voice echoing in complicated ripples, but halfway through he asks "How fast do you want it?" and the song changes to a haunting, spare beat, his voice clears out, and he comes right at us with a fiery delivery.
So maybe these aren't songs, maybe they're movements and the album is one unified sound. But here's the thing: they work either way. As their own contained pieces, they shift and reinvent themselves in compelling ways, but they also thump with a dark vitality. As an entire album, the movement is flawless in that, though the shifts in the middle of movements is jarring, the overall effect of the album is one of inevitability. As we shift from, say, from "free press and curl" to "an echo from the hosts that profess infinitum", the move from clean beats under wobbling synths to a haunting found-sound patchwork isn't as jarring as it should be because the new sounds feel like the ones that came before, even as they sound nothing like them. If the sounds and layers (and really the rules) of this album constantly change, its shadowy nature is uniform throughout. The album sounds as mysterious as Butler is presenting himself, and this hip-hop-electro-noir approach on Black Up -- if we have to give it an ultimately inadequate name -- is a unique reworking of genre conventions into something entirely new.
That word "feel" is important here, too, and not only for us. Butler often focuses on the idea of feeling here, as opposed to deep belief or concrete ideas. "It's a feeling," he insists over and over on "Are you…Can you…Were You? (Felt)", and goes on to let us into his process a bit. "My mind hides behind the music," he admits, and that idea, of incomplete revealing, takes on a lot of weight. He's more insistent in other places like when he spits "I run on feeling, fuck your facts" on "free press and curl", and the more he insists on this idea of feeling versus facts, abstract versus concrete, the more it makes sense. If you try to figure out Butler's meaning head-on, you'll often be confused. He raps of struggle often, both internal and social, but he also spits out braggadocio barbs about his skills, and muses on meeting girls at the club, and in all of this the line between mainstream and so-called "conscious" rap is blurred, perhaps suggested that the two aren't (or perhaps can't) be mutually exclusive.
His delivery is just as complicated as all of these different feels that run through the record as well. As inventive as the production is here Butler's flow is often charmingly old school. Uniform meters and hard end rhymes drive some of these songs forward, but he can also weave complicated slant and internal rhymes and sometimes (check "recollections of the wraith") he starts simply but works up his momentum into a fiery roll of words. Around his complicated verses, there aren't hooks. Instead, we get these spoken-word repetitions, sometimes mantra ("You know I'm free"), sometimes challenge ("Up, or don't talk shit at all"), sometimes question ("Who do you think you are?"). They're plainspoken, but rarely as simple as they appear since they don't neatly sum up the verses. Instead, they leave us with more questions, and while it's fascinating to do so, Butler seems to let us know that looking for answers isn't the point. All you'll get is half-answers anyway, and what matters here is that feeling he keeps insisting on.
Black Up is an album of disparate parts -- smooth jazz sounds cut into sharp bursts, Butler's intricate flow over stuttering sonic landscapes, spacey beats clustered up by buzzing sounds -- but Butler somehow wrangles them all together into an awfully impressive and deeply satisfying whole. This is an album with a brilliant sound, one that is as arresting to listen to as it is to puzzle over. If it's a hip-hop album -- and that's a big "if" -- then it's the finest one yet this year. And if it's not, well then, let's just call it one of the finest albums of 2011. It certainly feels that way.