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Album Review
Black Up

Black Up
by Shabazz Palaces

Sub Pop

Review Date
12th September 2011
Reviewed by
Justin Paul

The first thing that attracted me to Shabazz Palaces’s album Black Up was that it was a hip-hop release on Sub Pop. I remember the punt they took with the whispering country of Iron & Wine’s The Creek That Drank the Cradle, a beautiful album and completely at odds with their legendary roster. Black Up was bound to be something special, something unpredictable. It is certainly both of these things.

I had hoped to write a review of Black Up well before now. It has, after all, been streaming for weeks in its entirety on YouTube. But my biggest obstacle was the loss of my Grado headphones in the February earthquake. Listening to this album on Blackberry earphones in a car with a Discman is not a recommendation I am prepared to make. Black Up demands time and space. It also demands an old-fashioned, physical copy. Therein lie three important clues. The velvet sleeve is black and flecked with gold like a night sky: this is dark, tactile music. The disc itself is inside a red pocket which has a semi-robotic, African mask on one side and galactic hieroglyphs on the other: this is music from a tribe of aliens. Then there are the song titles - ‘A Treatease Dedicated to the Avian Airess from North-East Nubis (1000 Questions, 1 Answer): these aliens are incomprehensible and mad. Stand up Palaceer Lazaro - aka Ishmael Butler aka Butterfly from 90s rap-trio, Digable Planets - is the reluctant front-man for Shabazz Palaces. Interviews are rare, and the identities of the rest of the tribe are unknown.

On Father’s Day, I shooed my own tribe outside, turned Black Up loud and sat down. I needed to sit down: Black Up is short but exhausting. The subterranean bass is the first thing that strikes you – literally - then as the 36 minutes unwind, the listener is lashed with soul, funk, jazz, Eastern slashes and ancient African percussion. It is difficult to tell where one track ends and the next begins; it is an album and, as such, will evade any playlist dissection. Equally, Black Up will be lost on any listeners who require a thread of consistency or logic to lead through them through such a labyrinth. This is for listeners who are more than happy to remain lost.

While Shabazz Palaces, perhaps admirably, take great pains to avoid any taint of commercialism and popularity, their stance presents a double-edged scimitar. The song titles and lyrics keep their distance: there are snatches of love, politics and vitriol, but no hits. Second track, ‘An Echo from the Hosts That Profess Infinitum’ with its ghostly female backing vocals is the only track that comes close to being a single. The album closes appropriately with ‘Swerve…The Reeping…’. Shabazz Palaces try to shake any followers as the track switches back and forth between beats that crunch and fizz, soulful vocals and African drums. The method in their cosmic madness, however, was revealed on ‘Are You…Can You…Were You? (Felt)’ when Lazaro repeats, ‘It’s a feeling’. Shabazz Palaces wields music that is freed from A&R, egos and cliché. Analysis is pointless.

Some will scoff. Sub Pop? The arthritic ‘real deal’ rap fan might see this as hip-hop for indie white boys. In Blogland, blow-hards dismiss punters who include a ‘token’ black record on their precious end-of-year lists. Mos Def’s Ecstatic, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy, Why?’s Alopecia and OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/Love Below made many such lists. They were some of the best albums of the last decade in any genre, precisely because they were not limited by genre. Despite lacking the bangers of these classics, Black Up is black gold: it is rich, divisive and elusive.


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