In the early days of Bollocks! (when we updated about as frequently as we have been the last two weeks. We’re working on it, I promise), I sometimes felt guilty for never having listened to bands or artists whose names are repeatedly dropped in circles of People Who Know Shit About Music. For instance, I have still never heard a single Guided By Voices song. But I do own one Robert Pollard record. Guided By Voices fans might be quick to suggest I’ve missed out on something special, but there’s also a kind of advantage in hearing something like Pollard’s We All Got Out of the Army without being able to make the default comparison to his old legendary gig. I don’t know how legendary Digable Planets were, but I’ve heard their name mentioned by every trustworthy hip-hop aficionado I’ve spoken to in the last decade or so. I still haven’t listened to them and yet here I am blasting Black Up, the new record by former Digable Planet Ishmael Butler, released under the name Shabazz Palaces.
The first thing you’re likely to notice about Black Up is that it’s an almost willfully obtuse album. The song titles are pretentious on a level that would make Conor Oberst blush and the beats are generally free of both boom and bap, preferring instead to wander over jazz-inflected bass lines, glitchy electronics, and exquisitely sung female backing vocals. Shabazz Palaces’ defenders might call these songs “spacious” and I’m inclined to agree with the assessment. In terms of sheer musical imagination, Black Up is like a sparse cousin to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, although Ishmael Butler buries his pop sensibilities a little deeper than Kanye does.
I first tried to listen to this album in my car but, with the sound of road noise, other cars, and a crazy woman telling everyone to go to hell as she crossed against a traffic signal (happened to me on my way to work the other day), it just didn’t grab me. As I write this, I’m listening to Black Up on my headphones and it fares a lot better this way. My head is full of every nuance of these beats (and let’s face it: a lot of hip-hop, especially the mainstream stuff, is desperately lacking in nuance) and I’m hearing melodies in the instrumental parts that were completely lost in my car’s shitty factory-issue sound system (I’m never gonna be the guy next to you whose throbbing bass is shaking your fillings loose, but I wouldn’t object to a car stereo that can give me a little more bang for my sonic buck, both on albums like Black Up and, say, Minor Threat’s Complete Discography or Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison. I’m talking about clarity of sound here, not just bowel-jiggling bass).
The lyrics, in part because of Butler’s slight voice, tend to drift up from below the surface of the music, but there are some great moments here. “Youlogy,” which also has the least pretentious title on the album, features a line that I love: “The money always fools ya/ so corny’s gettin’ cooler” (the line was particularly resonant with me when I was listening to the album on Spotify because it was interrupted by a commercial for some song called “My Best Friend’s Brother” which is apparently all the rage among the Disney kids these days. The nicest thing I can say about that fucking song is that it is corny). Butler proves to have a subtle but biting wit throughout Black Up but it may take you a while to notice it through the fog of clicks, hisses, and snapping beats. The album ostensibly has battle rap tunes (“Yeah You”) and party songs (“Recollections of the Wraith”) but they’re presented in a way that reveals Butler to be a tireless tester of traditional song structures. It may be cliché to say that Black Up is like no other rap album I’ve heard, but it’s also the truth. Maybe Madvillainy is close.
Fans of more traditional hip-hop (even stuff like Atmosphere or Pharoahe Monch, whose new album is pretty good despite a guest appearance by the completely unnecessary Citizen Cope) might find Black Up a little baffling or possibly even a little infuriating at first and the real test of whether or not you’re gonna like it is the amount of time you’re willing to spend getting to know it. It’s taken me about a month of steady listening to finally decide I like the record and that might be a bit too much time for others to put in when they can get instant gratification elsewhere.
One of the questions I struggled with before Black Up completely won me over was whether or not it was possible to recognize something as an innovative, impressive piece of art and still not be all that enthusiastic about it. I think that’s basically how my wife feels about John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, an album that I fucking love. Obviously, it depends on the individual listener, but I decided that I definitely can. It wasn’t hard for me to understand immediately that Shabazz Palaces was doing something special with Black Up (hip-hop songs with distinct movements!) but I came to that conclusion well before I developed any desire to listen to the album for pleasure. As it is, I’m finding it pretty enjoyable on my headphones while it’s raining outside (maybe because Butler is a Seattlite), but it’s going to be hard-pressed to work its way into my party mix. It’s just not that kind of album to me. I guess what I’m saying is that whereas a lot of hip-hop albums are made to be consumed as loudly and publicly as possible, Black Up feels like a secret whispered in your ear and set to some wonderfully whack beats.