A lot of times when you’re reviewing a record, especially a rap record, you get a copy the same day the rest of the world does; often that is also the day when you find out that said rap record even exists. Not so with Shabazz Palaces’ new two-album project, Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines / Born On A Gangster Star, which I received in its entirety way back in April, along with full liner notes and a Google document containing all of the lyrics. This is unusual, but also uniquely appropriate for Shabazz Palaces. The duo’s 2011 debut, Black Up, remains an album of opaque radiance, a mysterious song cycle that, as it gradually leaked out, was actually the long-gestating return of Digable Planets’ Ishmael Butler, albeit under a new guise and a few light years from the high-minded jazz rap he practiced in the late ’90s. Black Up’s reputation as an underground classic has only grown over the years, but its follow-up, 2014’s Lese Majesty, disappeared further into the diffuse electro caverns uncovered on its predecessor, and faded from sight within them. A small group of acolytes seem to resolutely get it, proclaiming that its suite-like structure contains hard-won beauties. But it more or less slid away from everyone else’s awareness.
The auspicious, double-album format of Quazarz (as well as the generous lead time for critics) seems to be ensuring this project gets the full attention and analysis that Butler’s work deserves. It’s excessively rich stuff, full of ever-shifting images of moonlit specters and ancient mysteries, with minimalist beats that evade easy definition and hooks that dissolve on contact. And after approximately 10 weeks of feverish listening, I looked back over the notes I had taken only to find them almost completely useless. Here is a representative sample:
“the ss quintessence”:
something about hashtags
“quazarz on 23rd”:
It’s not exactly the skeleton key to unlocking Shabazz Palaces’ latest and densest sonic mystery. But maybe this isn’t a case where having the answers is important; rather, take it as an assurance that, even after 10 weeks of scrutiny, these records are still unfolding. They’re designed like labyrinths, full of images that act as hyperlinks to other spaces, reappearing and recontextualizing repeatedly.
The Quazarz theme hems things in a little, providing a consistent set of topics, at least. The traditional Shabazz Palaces lyrical touch points of vain rappers, celestial flyness, and sci-fi esoterica cohere into a more unified bildungsroman, collapsing Butler’s Seattle adolescence with musings on our society’s increasing dependence on cellphones and social media. Off-boarding hip-hop to the cloud turns his battle raps into ontological, almost cyberpunk missives (from “30 Clip Extension”: “Your favorite rapper is fashioned by some unseen hand / Begat by some secret plans”), and it turns sex into scenes of interstellar communion (from “Atlaantis”: “Toward roundness my glance escapes at deities effeminence”).
The theme is a sort of armor that locks around Butler as he dissects black identity in America—but it’s no mere metaphor. Rather, both albums create worlds unto themselves. The gauzy, sensual Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines highlights the duo’s more melodic side, moving from lust and consummation to a film-noir spy flick, pursued by nebulous internet drones. Born On A Gangster Star zeroes in on Butler’s abstract state-of-hip-hop lyrics, epitomized by the booming, beautiful “Shine A Light.” Still, these delineations aren’t exact. Both albums seem to circle each other like binary stars, feeding off of and justifying the other.
It’s some dense shit, is what I’m saying, and it’s frequently insane. “30 Clip Extension” ends with a list of mechanical computer parts; “Moon Whip Quäz” sounds like the introductory music to a disco opera. And those lyrics sheets prove to be puzzles of their own, including the following note for instrumental “Dèesse Du Sang”: “This song is sung in the ancient Quasarian Fluud’Or tongue Quazars grew up speaking.” Very helpful, thanks.
Occasionally moments pop through the elliptical fog, providing a glimpse into their real-world stimuli. The pulsing, aquatic “Late Night Phone Calls” may be the most elaborately robed story about Tinder ever written; “Eel Dreams” nestles a story about sexting and Netflix-and-chill into an electro-funk tableau of hologram synth-bots and beams of light. But the moment you steady a narrative in your mind, it all shakes apart and reforms. Quazarz listeners essentially become protagonists from a Jorge Luis Borges story, piecing together inadequate notes on an intentionally byzantine conspiracy, impossible to fully grasp.
There’s a strange allure to art like this, in which a secret back door leads to a mysterious stairwell that arcs up to the very room you started in. Borges is an obvious touchpoint, but Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, and Mark Danielewski continued that literary gamesmanship; in film, there are the spiraling nightmares of David Lynch and the surface-level abstractions of Michael Haneke. In music, it’s almost a cliché to eventually turn to sci-fi conceptualism, but successfully doing so is part of how Radiohead created its legend. In hip-hop, however, there are few comparable precedents. The dusty, chess-boxing mythos of the Wu-Tang Clan was mostly a series of comic-book alter egos, while the knottiness of Aesop Rock’s lyricism lacks the sort of world-building all those non-rap artists employ.
In all of these cases, the aim is to leave you lost somewhere in the funhouse, grasping for meaning; it turns art appreciation into a sort of puzzle to be unlocked. It’s no surprise that games themselves are uniquely good at creating these impossible, allusive possibility spaces, whether it’s the black monolith of Fez, the alien cosmologies of Aliceffekt’s work, or even the walkthrough-shirking abstraction of Dark Souls’ architectural history. Other games, like Monument Valley, Antichamber, and Naissancee, more directly created these mysterious Piranesian nowheres.
When it comes to Quazarz, as with a game, you have to want to play. It does little to draw more casual listeners in, and is probably more fun to think (and write) about than actually listen to. The albums represent a further retreat from the traditional boom-bap on which Butler made his name, and sometimes it’s hard not to yearn for a return to those simpler times—particularly when the whispers of it on Gangster Star’s “Shine A Light,” Lese Majesty’s “Forerunner Foray,” or Black Up’s “Recollections Of The Wraith” provide such radiant examples of the form.
But then, there’s plenty of that stuff out there. The entire point of artworks like what Shabazz Palaces has delivered here is to create a distinctly self-contained universe. Here Butler and collaborator Tendai Maraire mix up horny Jack Vance space adventure, high-minded Frank Herbert philosophizing, and the pastel cityscapes of Moebius into what have to be some of the most subliminal hip-hop disses ever leveled. Armies of corny rappers are disassembling into 1s and 0s, utterly annihilated, while Shabazz Palaces jets off in its whip to some new, inner galaxy. Butler and Maraire seem uninterested in whether you “get it.” You meet them on their own turf, and you get lost there.