Hip-hop has spent decades evolving past the platform of ingenuity, ephemerality, and improvisation it was founded on, continuing to shoot out new branches of dynamic, iconoclastic weirdness in defiance of the genre’s increasingly safe and corporatized center. Yet these experimental new modes still largely remain rooted to a fixed perspective, with former children of poverty announcing their rebirth as economically ascendant demigods surrounded by all the haughty implements of wealth and splendor. This POV has remained rap’s most persistent constant, even as gender, political, and emotional concerns become more fluidly confronted, with few MCs daring to diverge from the standard narrative of ever-mounting self-improvement and truly head out into the creative weeds.
A joint effort between former Digable Planets rapper Ishmael Butler and Zimbabwean-American multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, Shabazz Palaces does just that, reviving the playful, character-focused burlesque explored by the likes of MF Doom and Kool Keith’s Dr. Octagon while pushing it toward esoteric, sonically expressive ends. The duo’s characteristic drive toward enigmatic self-erasure is prevalent on Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, a loose concept album about inter-galactic transcendence that purposely diminishes the prominence of its main MC, passing his voice through a wide variety of filters and perspectives, toying endlessly with the relationship between beats and lyrics. Pushing into a mystic wonderland of fantastical pan-African imagery, the album explores a mythos as rich as Wu-Tang’s urban samurai aesthetic but twice as inscrutable. A cosmic stew of shifting tones and textures, it offers a fascinating, inward-pointing hermeneutics, one fixated on describing a complex internal state by forsaking any semblance of literal-minded, object-obsessed grandstanding.
The music itself provides the surface glitz, unspooling in sumptuous tapestries in which no element ever takes center stage for long, swapping out repetitive beats for a style that makes an ethereal asset of its mutability. Quazarz fittingly opens with “Since C.A.Y.A.,” where a skittering hand-drum rhythm summons a mood somewhere between frantic and mesmerizing, segueing into a sinuous bassline overlaid with heavily processed, incantatory vocals. This dizzying, at-times robotic-sounding dirge continues to bend and morph for a full two-and-a-half minutes before a recognizable melody pops up, coalescing into a slinky outro that maintains the track’s staggered momentum while completely transforming its overall character.
The rest of Quazarz continues in this mold, alternating atmospheres as Butler worms his way through the loamy mix, moving from a dull mumble to a clear-voiced snap, reverb and combative multi-tracking providing further foils for his ever-changing voice. Compare this to 2014’s Lese Majesty, which flowed smoothly, the album’s invocation of mysterious, magisterial cool matched by the scintillating slow-burn of its spotless production. Quazarz instead reaches back to the group’s earlier work in a far more coherent context, mirroring the cold emptiness of outer space with a jagged sound that’s sharp, menacing, yet entirely welcoming.
The through lines that entwine the album can be hard to uncover, but the use of repeating themes and motifs, paired with the opaque, endlessly dissectible nature of Butler’s verbal hieroglyphics, confirms Shabazz Palaces’s innate classicism. This unity of words and music is strong enough to sustain the back-to-back pairing of tracks like “Shine a Light,” a sparkling poetic disquisition on religious perfection and luxury-car fetishism built around a single looped soul sample (Dee Dee Sharp’s gorgeous “I Really Love You”) and “Dèesse du Sang,” a moody, turbulent instrumental in which Butler’s voice is reduced to another melodic element.
In an era where many forward-thinking MCs explore new melodic avenues and are derided by purists as pushing style over substance, an album like this delivers both qualities in equal measure: no gimmicks, no shortcuts, just a profuse mass of rich, literate lyricism, propped up by an overflowing bounty of complex musical accompaniment.