We’re counting down our 10 favorite records released in the Pacific Northwest in 2011, follow along!
#2 Shabazz Palaces – Black Up (Sub Pop)
“Just another….” review of Shabazz Palaces critically acclaimed, seminal demiurgical creation entitled Black Up.
What can I possibly say about this album that hasn’t already been offered up to the blogosphere universe in the most hyperbolic, inquisitive, sometimes misguided, corner office with a nice view of a city park, “Can Ishmael Butler’s third eye see my innermost thoughts?” analytical, tooth and comb way imaginable?
I have no idea. That’s why I’m going to be as direct (doubtful) and brief (you’re kidding right?) as I can possibly be. Gentle readers, good luck connecting the dots.
When I was a pre-teen I saw an interview with Thurston Moore on a television program that I can no longer remember. During the interview Mr. Moore spoke of how he looked to find melody in ordinary, everyday things, because there are melodies all around us. Items such as the creaky sounds from a wheel barrow, lawnmowers cutting the grass and windshield wipers defending your windshield against trying precipitation. I tried my best to accurately ride the jock of Thurston to emulate Thurston’s words and write songs based on microwave sounds and people falling down/up the stairs (this didn’t happen often). However, I did not have the mental capacity then (and arguably now) to be inspired enough to compose and craft anything that anyone would wanted to be bothered to listen to.
As soon as I hit play on Black Up, Thurston Moore’s words awoke in my mind after a cicada-like slumber and it all made sense.
Hear me out.
This album is based on melodies you don’t hear but feel. It’s a pretentious, vague sentence but one that is totally applicable. Sure, you hear the rhythm and melody in an audible fashion. Yet, when you think of the creation of this music as a listener (ie. the accusatory synthesizer chanting of “An Echo From the Hosts…”), it’s extremely hard to understand how one arrives at the end point when you’re starting from thin air radio silence.
If I could choose a solitary word to define this album (impossible) it would be “otherworldly.” There are celestial/outer-space references littered throughout almost every song. When I listen to Black Up, I think of George Clinton fronting Parliament-Funkadelic. I am reminded of the autonomus, uplifting groove of Sly and the Family Stone. Even though the aforementioned imprints are a bit obvious (in my opinion), I may be alone in reminiscing about my love fo Radiohead’s Kid A or Bjork’s Vespertine while Black Up is emerging from my sound-system. For me, it’s all there in plain view, Afrocentric spaceship funk.
I’m not going to explain what this album sounds like if you haven’t heard it. It’s not out of laziness, it’s because it’s not really possible…
Screw it. I’ll give it a shot.
“Endeavors for Never….” sounds like heroin inspired android jazz in the throes of Harlem in the 1930′s 3030′s. At first listen I could not fit all the elements of this song into a cohesive structure, but upon further review this might be the most “normal” back-beat on this album. Keys operating close to conventional timing, smooth as silk female vocals, a stirring sample of a lazy jazz drum fill, “forever and ever.” I don’t mind if you do, play it again Sam.
“Are you…” has an intro that reminds me of the greatest album of all-time! has an intro that sounds like a Kid A/Amnesiac b-side. The mantra “it’s a feeling,” takes over the song, reiterating that this album is much more than just sounds, it exists purely in the way that your body responds to the rhythm. Those verses paint a story and trick your hips into a predictable lull. However, by the end of the song you’re grooving to beats that would not be out of place on Of Light or the self-titled release. Finally, the line “That’s why, I won’t be back a long time….” is placed conveniently in the apex of a dance hall collapse. No smoke, no fire or panic, just a clear-cut explanation.
The words on this album carry more weight than before (and they were already on the shoulders of Atlas to begin with). “A Treatise Dedicated..(1000 Questions, 1 Answer)” is an example of the interpolation (very literal when you hear the story told within the song) of a theme that was largely absent on prior Shabazz Palaces releases, love. When I first heard this song, I thought of another unconventional “love” song in Outkast’s “Toilet Tisha.” The music, the story, the promises that are made are spectacular, but what really makes the song are the unanswered questions at the of composition. Internalized and all too real, whether posed from across a crowded room or while you’re lying in bed alone at night. It’s amazing how little things make a song.
But what about the meaning behind the album’s title, Black Up? Is there any meaning there or is it something that I’ve imagined after dozens of listens?
The theme of being genuine is a consistent one throughout the entire album. Butler asks the listener who they think they are on the album’s second track and does not stop asking until the album is over. “Youlogy” serves as a curtain call for materialism and the feigned. “Yeah you” is a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre for artists and industry personalities that have made a living off of posturing. “My hand’s so flush/You’ll have to fold/The played out rhthyms that you told/For all the priceless things you sold..you corny nigga.” You can’t tell if that sample is money being dropped into a piggy bank or slaves’ chains are clanging in unison. Either way, there might not be a difference between the two.
But what does this have to do with being black per se? When Butler says “…Things are looking blacker but black is looking whiter,” is he talking about how corporate America is attempting to adopt hip-hop culture in order to push product (nothing new)? Is he refering to the fact that many of these hip-hop artists are running around wearing skinny jeans and starring in wholesome family movies? Or maybe he’s speaking about Obama and the fact that blacks are “more accepted” by American culture across the board?
I’m not sure, I feel it’s up for the listener to decide. One thing I do know is this, there is really nothing more infuriating, agitating, aggrevating, insert many other unfavorable synonyms here than when someone questions your blackness. If you’re black, it’s happened to you more times than you can count unfortunately. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or where you’re going, someone is going to level those systemic accusations in your general direction. It might arise from your educational background, your demeanor or a myriad of cultural factors that may be mired in preconceived stereotype or ignorance. The worst part is, not just black people question your blackness, everyone feels like they are entitled to express an opinion on how black you are or aren’t. I could write a thesis on this topic (again) but this is an album review and I’ve already said too much. I’ll leave you with this….
Black Up is saying, “Black folks, be you, whatever ‘you’ that may be. You are beautiful.” Many, many albums have expressed this type of sentiment before, but I can’t recall any that presented it in the type of fashion Shabazz Palaces have done so on Black Up. Just think, the fact that I thought of Thurston Moore, Bjork and Radiohead (I could have even said some Boards of Canada as well) during the initial moments of this album and none of those artists have ever had anything to do with being black or black empowerment, is a remarkable achievement in itself.
You don’t have to listen to the last minute and a half of “Swerve…” to comprehend what is going on here.
(Writer’s note: This applies to listeners of all races but, hey, I’m black so……)