If there's one thing we're supposed to know about Shabazz Palaces, it's that we're not supposed to know shit. In the two years since recordings by the Seattle-based hip-hop act of that name have surfaced to effusive praise, Palaces' MC, producer, and mastermind Palaceer Lazaro (aka Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler of the Grammy-winning alt-hip-hop mavens Digable Planets) has steadfastly avoided elaborating on what makes the project tick. He dodged interviews for a spell, relenting only for Pitchfork, but his noncommittal answers created only more questions. In a sterling example of this approach, Butler spoke of the project as "we," but refused to name his partners. The article produced few lessons, namely that the group members aren't into the concept of interviews, they want to earn their fans slowly, they're independent, and this whole mysterious angle isn't a conscious thing. "It's just that we've got a different set of beliefs, experiences, and desires in terms of what success is," Butler said, keeping things as vague as ever.
He has done other interviews that yield only scraps. When The Stranger asked when Shabazz Palaces began — as innocuous as queries get — Butler responded, "Why?" We've heard of the importance of artists making themselves available to the media, but Palaces' hype proves that puzzles and smoke work, too, if they're teamed with compelling music.
A few pertinent details have fallen through the cracks. In Palaces, Butler maintains a deep affinity for Arab motifs. The group's logo features a scimitar and Arabic-style script. Butler often dons a headscarf and sunglasses for shows, looking like the chicest of Bedouins. One collaborator we can confirm is percussionist Tendai Maraire, who also plays mbira (thumb piano). Additionally, Shabazz Palaces will reportedly provide the soundtrack for Tough Bond, a documentary on Kenyan street children who are hooked on glue. Tally these items, along with the Palaces' moniker ("Shabazz" has strong Muslim and/or African connotations; Malcolm X was also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), and you see a sort of Afro-Muslim empowerment thing going on, although Butler has kept mum on those implications, too. (Big surprise, right?)
Black Up, to be released later this month, is an excellent introduction to Palaces' work. Notable as Sub Pop's inaugural hip-hop release, the album is proudly messy and unpredictable, packed with clipped synth lines and rhythms grinding in and out of focus. Dubstep smears its grime all over. Songs fluctuate in strange, slippery formations and incorporate soulful female crooning, a creepy choir of what sounds like children, or skronky brass.
Butler's rambling track titles read like a budding philosopher's half-formed theories ejected directly onto paper: "Are you... Can you... Were you? (Felt)" and "A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)" [sic]. His cadence functions in similarly slanted fashion, sometimes leading to babbling, sometimes to a line recited with authority. Like the instrumentation, his style is distinct and often arrhythmic.
Butler is weaker at creating a solid narrative or consistently stringing together provocative images — a problem dogging many rappers. His grab bag style means killer punch lines share virtual real estate with disjointed thoughts and, less often, humdrum boasts. He can offer fresh perspective on one subject ("A treatease" definitely concerns a love interest) but also espouse clichés, as when he attacks big-business corruption in heavy-handed terms ("Here we stand/Slave to networks' master plans"). He frequently refers to the theme of freedom, leading to some more memorable hooks: "Clear some space out so we can space out," he says in "Recollections from the wraith," while in "free press and curl," he brags, "I'm free/Shit, you know I'm free."
Still, even for Shabazz Palaces' downsides, the group freely throws itself into the off-kilter, and its long-term possibilities are thrilling. Time will likely fade its mystique, but if a quip from "free press" is any indicator, don't expect Butler to go down easy: "I run on feelings, fuck your facts/Deception is the truest act."