“Hands up wherever you at” is the first line of Robed in Rareness, the new release by Shabazz Palaces. This could mean any number of things at the start of a hip-hop album. A stop and search by police? A stage call to the audience at a show? Neither applies in this case. Dispensing with the usual rap cliches, Ishmael Butler, the mastermind behind Shabazz Palaces and formerly of Digable Planets (as “Butterfly”), is instead announcing a set of intentions, a personal statement, about this album and his career. “All I wanna do is feel free in my mind / All I wanna do is grab hold of my time,” he concludes by the end of “Binoculars”, the album’s opening track.
With the celebration of its 50th anniversary, hip-hop has been the subject of numerous retrospectives over the past year, including elaborate spreads in staid publications like The New York Times. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find Shabazz Palaces cited. Butler’s project has always defied easy categorization. Based in Seattle, Shabazz Palaces has refuted dichotomies of West Coast versus East Coast hip-hop and refused the patriarchal style of figures like Kanye West and Jay-Z. Musically, Butler has also deconstructed hip hop into its more elemental forms, with the logocentrism of rhyme and flow often decentered in favor of atmospheric sound design. Bitches Brew (1970) is more of a reference point than, say, Raising Hell (1986), to put it mildly.
Robed in Rareness is similarly difficult to define. With seven tracks at 24 minutes, it has been promoted as an EP and a “mini album”. It is also positioned as the first in a series. Against this backdrop, a new kind of musical expansiveness can be heard in this release, an openness that may be attributed to a new set of collaborators. Butler’s long-time partner, Tendai Maraire, is absent. Shabazz Palaces’ debut, Black Up (2011), was an enigmatic listening experience that unsettled certain conventions, as noted. Subsequent releases like the duo Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star (2017) and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines (2017) brought more focus and clarity to Butler’s imagination, with Sun Ra being a residing spirit.
Robed in Rareness continues in this Afrofuturistic direction. The second track, “Woke Up in a Dream” (featuring Lil Tracy), has an unambiguous sci-fi atmospheric vibe: imagine if Blade Runner (1982) had a hip-hop soundtrack instead of the famed one by Vangelis. This synth-heavy approach with disembodied vocals is extended on the tracks that follow, including “P Kicking G” (featuring Porter Ray), “Cinnamon Bun” (featuring Lavarr the Starr), “Gel Bait” (featuring Geechi Suede), and “Hustle Crossers”. Taken together, Robed in Rareness is more Kid A (2000) than Space Is the Place (1972).
Lyrically, the album sometimes slips into familiar themes – women, wealth, fronting, and hedonistic leisure – which is disappointing. “I’m a bad boy with no thoughts of seeing marriage / I keep a couple of Karen’s turning tricks at the Sheraton” from “Scarface Mace” (featuring O Finess) is one example. Musically, Robed in Rareness moves slowly and deliberately, imparting a menacing, anxiety-ridden quality that mitigates some of these cliches. Still, it is unclear whether Butler and his collaborators are unconsciously recycling familiar topics or seeking to transpose them into the future to make a critical statement about entrapment and the repetition of Black life.
This limitation and ambiguity aside, Robed in Rareness remains a compelling listen. An Afrofuturistic sensibility persists as Shabazz Palaces’ signature feature. Inklings of this orientation could be heard on tracks like “The King’s New Clothes Were Made by His Own Hands” from Black Up, but this approach didn’t become defining until their sophomore release, Lese Majesty (2014). On Robed in Rareness, Butler takes yet another step in his forward-thinking, far-sighted project, as the opening track title, “Binoculars”, indicates. Despite the brevity of this release, space is still the place.