There's not much about Shabazz Palaces that isn't a mystery. Two years ago when the group self-released a pair of highly acclaimed mini-albums, almost zero information about who the band was came along with it. There was no Shabazz Palaces MySpace page to link to, and no phone number or email to contact. Ishmael Butler—of the longtime alternative hip-hop act Digable Planets—finally emerged as the groups sole frontman, but the names of the other members involved were left a secret. Getting an interview with Butler was about as impossible as understanding the group's song titles, which sometimes would read out like sentences (example: "32 leaves dipped in blackness making clouds forming altered carbon"). It's as if Shabazz Palaces' desire to be left an enigmatic entity was more important to them than getting discovered at all.
Thankfully for them though, the music was all that was needed to get the fire burning. The group's contemporary form of avant-garde hip-hop resonated extremely well with listeners, and it didn't take long for major labels to catch on. Eventually, Shabazz Palaces would sign to Sub Pop Records, and now, a mere two years later, we have the debut commercial release from the group, Black Up.
Black Up is the accumulation of everything Shabazz Palaces is in musical form, so it should be of no surprise that the content itself is somewhat mysterious. Songs are laced with deep dub beats, and bouncing 808s, and swirling synths over thick, sparse drums. Productionally, there's a strong correlation with African tribal rhythms, but embedded with futuristic synths and reverb FX. Lyrically, Butler shows a more mature and experimental side of himself when approaching songwriting. His verses are highly abstract, many times using descriptions of how the music makes him feel to communicate his beliefs and opinions. On "Free Press and Curl" Butler confesses "I lost the best beat that I had. I'm free, to be a slave to all these things I cant escape before proclaiming/You know I free, to fill my smiles with tears that I forgot". Similarly, the song "Are You, Can You, Were You? (Felt)" finds him explaining his music theory through chants of "It's a feeling, I woke up to it, my crime be music, relax inside my shiny blueness". It's deeply poetic and complicated lyrics, but when matched with the equally convoluted production, a weird clarity emerges.
Shabazz Palaces began their musical quest with the goal of having listeners focus solely on the music rather than the persona behind it, and that's probably the best way to approach Black Up. Some of the album's extra effects may be a bit bewildering, but as a whole, the album is far from unfocused. Black Up is not an album that one can sit down and say, "oh I get it now." No, no, it's much more than that. The complexity of it is what gives it its shine, and each listen reveals something new and previously unheard. In the end, this is exactly what makes Black Up a rewarding experience.