Countless pop artists have attempted to reinvent themselves in the public eye, and many have failed miserably. Perhaps it was prescient, then, that Seattle’s Ishmael Butler called himself Butterfly nearly two decades ago, when he was the helium-voiced street shaman at the heart of Digable Planets. After 16 years of relative silence (he did some guest spots and fronted a failed funk-rap outfit), Butler has accomplished the nigh-impossible, successfully metamorphosing into the shadowy Shabazz Palaces, and with Black Up, creating a potential successor to Cannibal Ox’s 2001 alt-rap masterpiece, The Cold Vein.
The Shabazz sound splits the difference between the blunt beat crush of Dead Prez and the blunted head rush of Flying Lotus, and Butler’s lyrics are a perfect storm of rap swagger, political poetry, and cultural crypticisms. On “Recollections Of The Wraith,” over MPC-chopped drums and a looped R&B moan, he hits upon an apt mantra: “Clear some space out so we can space out.” His artiness doesn’t ask for permission, which is why lines celebrating hood transcendence through creative zeal sound as hard as N.W.A. over the throbbing dancehall weirdness of “Free Press And Curl.” It’s also helps explain just how a song with a clunky, Dalí-esque title like “An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum” manages to bang and clang like Salem remixing Konono No. 1. “If you talk about it, it’s a show,” Butler reasons on the woozy closer “Swerve… The Reaping Of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding),” “but if you move about it, it’s a go.” By cutting out the usual comeback bluster and throwback rehash, Butler may have discovered hip-hop’s fountain of youth.