Ishmael Butler first became known as being the leader in Digable Planets, an early 1990s hip-hop group that scored a breakout hit with the jazz-tinged “Cool Like That”. They followed that single with a well-regarded second album called Blowout Comb but failed to connect with the audience. After nearly 15 years in the wilderness, Butler returned with producer Tendai Maraire under the moniker Shabazz Palaces. Together they’ve release two EPs, two full-length albums, and now their double-concept-album Quazarz: Born a Gangster Star and Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines.
The sound of Shabazz Palaces is first and foremost very intellectual—both Butler’s rapping and lyrics, as well as Maraire’s beats, work within the hip-hop idiom in a reflexive fashion. It’s the kind of rap music is steeped in mystique, although there is a sense of humor embedded in nearly every song. Butler often plays hip-hop archetypes like a street enforcer or horny lothario but does so with self-awareness and clever wordplay. Maraire’s beats often resemble J Dilla and Madlib in their soulful abstraction. He’s a producer that seems to be just as musically influenced by experimental music, like musique concrete as by someone like DJ Premier, who brought unique abstraction to hard-hitting beats that sounded great on car stereos. Shabazz Palaces is an emphatically nocturnal group — even at their most prismatic, their music conjures a dark otherworldliness that is reminiscent of the spacey techno group Drexicya.
Like that infamous duo, Shabazz Palaces couch conceptual heft — in this case, Quazarzis the name of the of an extraterrestrial main character that unites the two records. But, unlike Drexicya’s catalog, and even Shabazz Palaces previous releases, there is something left to be desired here. Taken together, the two albums fail to cohere both sonically and conceptually. Throughout, Butler’s approach begins to wear a bit thin. His repetitive intonation, lack of melody, and lazy flow — all things that were proved to totally work on previous records — reveal Butler to be an artist the works best under concision. His approach previously felt oblique and razor-sharp (think Vince Staples on The Big Fish Theory), but his rhymes fail to strike a balance with Maraire’s fantastic beats.
Maraire is the real star of the show across both of the records. His beats hit with a sense of space and organization that feels architectural. They’re fussy, detail-oriented, and resolutely cold excepting a few fantastic pieces that hit Dilla levels of soulfulness. More than Butler’s rhymes, Maraire’s work here conjure another universe entirely. He refracts and reframes the hip-hop beat into something that’s unnerving and foreign. His work here is top-shelf and distinctive, even in the time when hip-hop is approaching a producer-first-rapper-second precedent heretofore unseen since the disco era’s producer-first-singer-second power roles. But still, without a rapper playing to his level, we’re left with little to chew on past Maraire’s beats.