Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is two albums from Shabazz Palaces, Quazarz Born On A Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines.
Ish Butler is 48 years old. Older than Jay-Z, he has had a longer rap career than most Billboard rappers have been alive; his debut with Digable Planets, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), was a spiritual kin to the jazz hip-hop of the Native Tongues movement in New York. The point is that his contemporaries are De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Queen Latifah; he’s not out here trying to compete with Drake or Thug or Savage or whoever else. But amongst his contemporaries, it’s hard to imagine any of them coming through with a two album song cycle that’s about a being sent from a different place to do reconnaissance and research on Earth and its timelines and its social media and its Kanyes. Butler isn’t like most artists though; since launching his Shabazz Palaces project in 2009 with two EPs, has pushed the boundaries of electronic music and rap, and delivered the most beguiling six release oeuvre in rap right now.
The storyline of Quazarz is hard to explain in a way that doesn’t spiral into me sounding like I took 48 tabs of acid and wrote this, but near as I can tell it breaks down in halves where Gangster Star is more introductory to the Quazarz quest for understanding and reaching out to people, where Jealous Machines is about him returning home to report what he’s seen (which includes “Love in the Time of Kanye”) and change things at home. But like most concept albums, the story isn’t what is actually important. The parameters of Shabazz Palaces music are well set—hazy beats that are hardly there and bolstered by synths that sound like space bugs and drums that sound like building collapses, with Butler rapping Blaxploitation bars over the top—and the pre-release single “Shine A Light” is the distillation of everything that’s come before; it bops, it has bars about the Four Horsemen, and it sounds futuristic and dusty at the same time.
If that’s all Quazarz was, that’d be a success, but it expands the palate of Shabazz Palaces in interesting ways. There’s a bigger incorporation of R&B in guest vocalists—Guy Dai on “Effeminence” and Purple Tape Nate on “Love In The Time of Kanye” especially—and the back half of Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star gives itself over to a sauntering, 198-esque run of industrial New Wave (“Moon Whip Quaz” is the highlight of the whole set). There’s also a largely instrumental ballad thrown in (“That’s How City Life Goes”) along with some machine gun spoken word (“Quazarz on 23rd”).
Taken as a whole, Quazarz is a monolith that is hard to find any edges to; it’s often impenetrable and dense and knotty and hard to follow. But that is, of course, the point. The point in listening to music this challenging is to try to see what angles you can approach this from. I’ve listened to this in whole at least 10 times, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to “getting it” or being able to give an elevator pitch on its greatness. Starting with Digable Planets’ landmark “difficult” sophomore album, Blowout Comb, Butler’s been doing this for a quarter century, and shows no mark of running out of ideas, or ways to stretch his concept of rap music further. The Quazarz saga is in some ways the group’s most complete project; a narratively constructed foray into the future forward world of Shabazz Palaces.