“I lost the best beat I ever had,” Palaceer Lazaro states on Black Up opener “free press and curl.” The double entendre is a blunter, crasser, succincter, edgier take on the now tried-and-true “I Used to Love H.E.R.” metaphor, but so is the album as a whole. Yes, Shabazz Palaces’ much-anticipated and already celebrated Sub Pop debut is all the things people say it is: impenetrable, forward-thinking, futuristic, Helio Sequence-influenced, uncategorizable, and really fucking good. But it is also something so much more familiar and purer than all that: a love letter to the art form.
Black Up may sound like no other record out there, but it is very much rooted in the hiphop tradition. In sound, “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” has serious thud amongst its disorienting and disturbing chopped wails, and “youlogy” uses vocal effects including the popular chopped-and-screwed deep, slurring voice. The album borrows textures from a wide variety of sources in a true crate-digging mindset — off-kilter live jazz drums for “Endeavors for Never,” African rhythms and chants for “The King’s new clothes.”
However, it is the lyrics where the homage is more obvious. When I saw Shabazz at Neumos back in February I was struck by Ish’s cocksure battle raps and sneering b-boy demeanor, an attitude prevalent on “Recollections of the wraith” and “yeah you.” “Recollections” find halfway thugs who think they want it getting put in their place, a battle rap in its purest and most snarling form. But on this and “yeah you,” the harshest criticisms are reserved for trend-chasers, for those who do not appreciate the art form and are diluting it with commercial garbage. “Euro-centric / zero pimpin’,” Lazaro says on “yeah you” over a rollicking Coltrane-esque rhythm section. It seems to be a direct diss to the vacuous Euro club sound dominating urban radio today. Slave chains clang in a break, indicating the modern musician’s self-imposed servitude to chasing popular sounds and styles; “slave to networks master plan” as he raps on “An echo.”
Unlike other rap traditionalists who cling hard to the old school, Shabazz Palaces are not so concerned with how the music has changed but how attitudes toward the art form, particularly by those creating within it, have. Hiphop as lady has not lost her loveliness, she has not been used up or played herself out. The girl “from a place where when we dance we shake our shoulders” is still “the shit.” What others are ignoring is this beauty, this intangible sentient force that means more than a commercial venture. Hiphop is not just a particular sound or attitude, “it’s a feeling,” Lazaro says on “Are you… Can you… Were you?”, one of the album’s sunniest and most tuneful tracks. The feeling has not been lost, but old heads have forgotten what it felt like and new ones have never experienced it for themselves.
Rather than rail against the new generation for what it has allegedly done to his beloved culture, rather than lash out with the same old sounds of yesteryear, Shabazz Palaces emphasize hiphop music’s glorification of individuality and authenticity by making something completely unheard of. However, Ish downplays its seeming progressiveness — it all is “just another beat.” Black Up does what hiphop is supposed to do: it’s supposed to explore new sonic territory, it’s supposed to make the listener think, it’s supposed to call out wackness and proclaim its own dopeness. It’s supposed to be this way. And it is. And it will be, hopefully just as much as when he first fell in love with her.