Shabazz Palaces 2023
Photo: Stephan Gray / Sub Pop

Shabazz Palaces Resist Profiling on Elusive ‘Exotic Birds of Prey’

Following Robed in Rareness from last fall, Shabazz Palaces continues a provisional series with the cryptic and digressive Exotic Birds of Prey.

Exotic Birds of Prey
Shabazz Palaces
Sub Pop
29 March 2024

One clue to understanding Shabazz Palaces‘ new release, Exotic Birds of Prey, comes in the liner notes written by Ishmael Butler, the rap auteur behind the feted Afrofuturist project. An unnamed narrator asks an unnamed audience, “What will you do when the robots don’t recognize your face?” These notes take the form of a short story set in the near future, involving a woman driving home at night with sheets of rain coming down. In a metafictional move, she is listening to Exotic Birds of Prey. Upon arrival at her gated community home, she is unable to enter due to her face being unrecognizable by a security sensor. The story ends with a flock of birds taking flight.

What is Butler trying to tell us? Exotic Birds of Prey arrives only five months after Shabazz Palaces’ last release, Robed in Rareness, which was released in October 2023. The liner notes for that album indicated it was the first in a series. It hosted a number of new collaborators, indicating Butler’s intent to take Shabazz Palaces in new directions while keeping to his established Afrofuturist aesthetic. The result was an engrossing listen that kept you on your feet. 

Robed in Rareness also had the feel of a hybrid work in terms of format. With seven tracks at 24 minutes, it was longer than a typical EP but not quite a full album. Exotic Birds of Prey continues in this vein almost exactly with seven songs at 23 minutes. Juxtaposed together, these albums don’t quite form a suite, so one can presume that Butler is still continuing a more extensive project through this yet-unspecified series. However, this new album suffers a bit from middle-child syndrome. It is unclear where Butler is heading. 

Exotic Birds of Prey is even more eclectic than its predecessor. Of course, this characteristic may be inevitable for any middle piece in a larger puzzle. The opener, “Exotic BOP”, composed with Purple Tape Nate, who appeared on Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines (2017) and The Don of Diamond Dreams (2020), is one of the longer tracks with a foreboding synth melody and electronic effects that sound like birdsong. Collaborating with fellow Seattle-based musicians Stas THEE Boss and Irene Barber, the second track, “Angela”, uses clips from a news announcement about displacement, gang violence, and survival to form a musical collage situated in a sonic landscape that channels Herbie Hancock circa Future Shock (1983). These two compositions are the best on the record.

After this compelling start, Exotic Birds of Prey becomes more digressive. “Myths of the Occult” is an anxiety-driven number that is more conventional in its beats and rhyme. It ends abruptly in under two minutes. “Goat Me” grippingly ratchets up the feeling of future unease for over four and a half minutes. It could easily be licensed to any sci-fi program currently in production. “Well Known Nobody” pulls back once more with squawking guitars that last just over a minute. The album concludes on a stronger note, if also somewhat inconclusively, with “Take Me to Your Leader”, an almost danceable collaboration with Lavarr the Starr with whom Butler has frequently worked. 

Exotic Birds of Prey consequently consists of briefly sketched ideas alongside a few more fully realized compositions. This unevenness may disappoint fans. Still, in a context that continues to experience the gentrification of hip-hop, Shabazz Palaces remains one of the most interesting rap projects active today. Butler does not lack ideas or references, and his guiding intelligence has consistently sought untested maneuvers for steering hip-hop in new directions.

Circling back to Butler’s cryptic allegory in the liner notes, it is clear that Exotic Birds of Prey is in part about transformation through music and eluding the oppressive modern impulse to profile and categorize, racially and otherwise. These themes speak to a broader ethos of Shabazz Palaces across their catalog. Yet, it is also apparent that this tactic of resistance and subversion can equally elude the understanding of listeners. 

The final image of birds taking flight recalls the Greco-Roman myth of the Owl of Minerva, which, as the story goes, takes off at dusk, signaling the idea that understanding only arises at the end of the day after the fact. Butler may be communicating a similar idea. One hopes that this vision will be elaborated further in the next Shabazz Palaces release.

RATING 7 / 10