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Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

June 24, 2011 at 8:26 AM

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Album of the year: 'Black Up' by Seattle's Shabazz Palaces

Warning: swearing

palaceer patch.jpg
Patch by Dumb Eyes / Palaceer Lazaro; photo by me

"Swerve... The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)" by Shabazz Palaces feat. THEESatisfaction (download here)

"An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum" by Shabazz Palaces (download here)

Warning: "Black Up" will knife your speaker fabric, transfix you with a beam of light and drop philosophy in your head. It is an experience, to say the least.

Pardon the hype, but the second album by Seattle hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces is the album of the year. Local, national, international — "Black Up" is it.

Wrapped in velvet with gold flecks (CD) and black material that feels like skin (LP), "Black Up" comes out on Seattle's Sub Pop Records Tuesday. The same day, the group — which performs as a duo, Ishmael Butler rapping and hitting buttons on a sampler, Tendai Maraire with his Shona percussion array — plays a free in-store concert at the Queen Anne Easy Street Records. Two concerts follow at Neumos Thursday and Friday.

The word "mysterious" gets tossed around a lot in descriptions of Shabazz Palaces. That's probably because Butler used to be mainstream famous — he won a Grammy and made classic songs with jazz-rap group Digable Planets in the '90s — but now chooses to work more anonymously, as Shabazz's lead creative force. He calls himself Palaceer Lazaro and doesn't like to talk about the past or his technique.

"Sub Pop let a brother walk to the outskirts of my imagination," says Butler, referring to himself, sitting in the Seward Park branch of Caffé Vita. "People think it's about mystery. It's really not. We just believe in something different. We're not intentionally trying to be on the outside of things, or anything like that. We don't even take that much time to think about stuff. It's all instinct, we put it down, this is it, and we just believe in that. That's all."

He's the star of "Black Up." The co-stars are Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White, from local sing/rap duo THEESatisfaction. More people worked on the album, but the credits are so few and confusingly written, there might as well be none.

"It's a Shabazz Palaces move," says Lazaro, by way of explanation.

There is a haunted vibe to the music on "Black Up." It's an album of extremes. There are ballads, like "Are you... Can you... Were you? (Felt)" that have glowing warmth — and songs with deep anger, like "Yeah You," where Lazaro faces down a stampeding herd of people he considers "corny." The surging, overdriven bass line makes you worry for the safety of your stereo, and when the beat drops, the sound of heavy chains brings to mind slave shackles.

In Lazaro's Palace, there is a strict ban on corniness, which involves: "Mink coats / pink throats / weak quotes / low hopes / anti-dope / filthy? nope / playing a part / never sharp."

It's all about self-centeredness, he says. "What makes somebody corny, it's not like, 'Your sneakers aren't cool' or nothing like that. If you pay attention to anything other than yourself, you'll be able to avoid that, to me. That's what it's really about. Consider things other than you, being cool. Even [expletive] you don't like. Or don't immediately appeal to your sensibilities."

It's simple, but profound. Try and be aware of the world, and you will appreciate it more. And once you get the hang of appreciating the moment, you'll start anticipating the future, whatever it may hold. That's why lots of Lazaro's lyrics are about the specialness of tonight, when anything can happen.

"My Mac Yawns..." and "A Mess..." are examples from 2009. On "Black Up" there is the uncharacteristically straightforward "Recollections of the wraith," which accents the positive anticipation of the unknown, as Lazaro glides on a wordless R&B hook and chants "tonight."

When you roll with him, he says, "there's no telling what you're gonna see," and promises "information / choices of sensation / new rules you can play with / blues: you can shake them."

Soaking up the message is one thing, but prying into the mechanics of how Lazaro's music is quite another. He doesn't want to give answers.

"The details, is the music," he says.

Which means we'll never figure out how he gets the "standard" Shabazz drum to sound like a captive bolt pistol. But where did he get that bewitching loop of a female vocal melody for the chorus of "Recollections of the wraith"? At any rate, surely it's too lengthy and unaltered for its source not to be found out eventually, by some fellow producer, DJ or Internet nerd. Did Sub Pop have to pay to license it? Then there would be a paper trail.

Lazaro says it is not a sample, but not an original recording either. That doesn't seem to leave any options.

But Lazaro counters, "There are some."

Who knows what they are, but here's a possible scenario: Walking the streets of Seattle late one night, Palaceer Lazaro found a woman singing by herself, ambling home from a nightclub. He trailed behind and recorded her voice with a digital recorder, which he habitually carries with him. Her singing was ghostly. The whole situation was chilly and invigorating. After a while he ducked off into an alley, took the recording home and spliced it into a drum track. He named it, "Recollections of the wraith," after the woman with the ghostly voice. Then he rapped sublime, poetic brags over it, about how, "When the plush crush through / you just ain't ready."

End of story.

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