Shabazz Palaces: Black Up
And as my only human friend, I want to give you a bit of advice, tiger to man. Treat your life like it’s the only one you have, because what comes after is more likely to either be nothing or something unbearable. In some ways, I wish I were just being mulched up and digested by some cross-eyed antelope. At least in that ignominious end there is some poetic justice. This is just an absurdist joke.
What isn’t an absurdist joke? Imagine this is a real joke:
Q. What’s harder to find than a unicorn?
A. A dragon smoking a cigarette.
Actually, now that I think of it, that might be absurdist, just a little. OK, let’s revise.
Q. What’s harder to find than a unicorn?
A. A good rap album.
That’s not a real joke. Plus I know that it’s not true, because on my desk right now is Shabazz Palaces’ album Black Up. This is a real treat, people, a real winner. How can this be so? What mechanisms are at work here to make this specimen a good album? Because it’s not every day you come across a good album, especially not here. So what makes a good album? The only way my tiny brain can think of to explain it is to compare and contrast.
Here’s another good album:
It’s called Graduation and it was released by Kanye West on a major label last decade. I know, the cobwebs on this puppy are pretty thick and tangled. It is, as I previously said, another example of what we in the critic business call a good album. Why do I bring it up? Well, because everything that makes Graduation work are pretty much the opposite in Black Up. Yet both are good. How to account for this? First, let’s see what this beast is saying:
Kanye West’s album, despite being a rap album, features the artist it’s catalogued under more than other people. So you get a lot of Kanye West rapping and producing, putting down tracks and digitizing them together. Graduation works for the same reason that his other albums work: Kanye West made them. To be more specific, the appeal and quality of the album depends not so much on great flow or lyricism–West has a lot of the latter but is inconsistent and has a fairly weak ability to spit verses smoothly–but on just how completely he recognizes his weaknesses as both an artist and a human being and builds something great out of them.
Part of the way he does this is through phenomenal production. Kanye’s beats are fat and lush. Graduation makes no apologies for what it is, and what it is is almost freakishly well-arranged ear candy. Songs shine so bright it’s no wonder the bear on the cover is tripping. Moving through a song on this album is like walking through a strobe light tunnel: mentally overpowering but indisputable awesome. Kanye writes with a mixture of crippling self-doubt devoid of humility and proud bravado bereft of any confidence. Despite the fact that at the time Graduation was released Kanye was living it up spending more every day than I ever did in my entire life (having no house helped), he makes himself into a weird human museum piece, a schematic with big neon labels and cross-sections detailing all of the telltale features of his peculiar species. He’s obsessed with all the things he doesn’t have and blithe about what he has. But what really sells it is the naivety, the wide eyes he seems to have. When he’s enjoying himself, it’s without regard for modesty. When he’s weeping or complaining about something, you don’t get any filter. It’s pure, 24 carat Kanye for fifty-four minutes. And that’s why it’s so great.
What about Black Up, the ostensible subject of this review before Kanye came in and interrupted it? Well, simply reverse much of what I just said. Actually, you can learn almost everything about the differences between them by looking at their covers. Really look at them next to each other. Stare, human. Stare. Done now? For the next, say, five minutes or so, write a report detailing what you think the differences will be.
(Five minutes pass.)
What did you produce? Let’s see it here.
“What I think Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up Sounds Like in Comparison to Kanye West’s Graduation Based on the Album Covers, by Jonathan Hielkema
Ishmael Butler, a rapper from Digable Planets¹, designed his cover as a black square. That is its founding principle. Blackness. Even the yellow pseudo-Gothic lettering is not so much a pure yellow but a kind of muted gold, suggesting the idea of opulence without being at all ostentatious. The whole cover is centered around a small diamond, and the overall design is highly attractive while making use of only a few elements.
The music within is murky and disorienting. For awhile, the listener will likely stumble through it, since its grooves are obscured and jagged. With Kanye’s Graduation cover, there is an ironically self-aware wide-eyed awe. This is utterly absent from the sheer curtain of black, which suggests a dimmer outlook. There is also the sense that Black Up will represent a monolithic statement, perhaps sticking closer in style than Graduation, which suggests a more riotous or celebratory atmosphere, from the title to the festive color of its surreal figures.”
Not bad. If you had actually written that, you would have gotten an “A.” Black Up is every milligram as unapologetic and idiosyncratic as Graduation, but without all the ostentation. Jazz and pitch-dark dance music infuse the production with a snappy verve despite the almost oppressive minimalism of the atmosphere. Many of the vocals sound like echoes, and the rapping is precise and flows with the obtuse beats remarkably well. Both the lyrics and music are ruthlessly Afrocentric, chanting “black is me, black is you, black is us, black is free” while the beats call to mind furtive dances in the dark and the spacey futurism of Sun Ra².
When I think of Graduation, I think of experiential, sensory words with many syllables. Words like “glittering,” “ostentatious,” “superficial,” “pleasurable,” and the like. The experience is all set out and defined for you, a banquet or gaudy feast. Black Up conjures up evocative monosyllables: “bleak,” “bold,” “stark,” “dark,” and on and on. Shabazz Palaces is all about sketching and evoking emotions and letting the appearances take care of themselves. You get the sense that the album was meticulously created, but its final minimalism makes it seem more organic. Kanye is, mostly for the better, deeply interested in the superficial and glitzy, and Black Up has none of that. The album is easy to imagine in cube form: an imposing, in-your-face metallic black cube. Unless you throw it out you can’t ignore it. It’s sitting in your room and if you don’t somehow learn to love it it’s going to nag on you all the time. There was nothing like it in the jungle, let me tell you³.
So what makes both of them good when they’re opposite each other? Perhaps I’ll tackle that sometime in the future. It’s only the most pressing and persistent question in all criticism. An afternoon should do to solve it.
1. An alternative rap group that mixes jazz and hip-hop. In it, Mr. Ishmael Butler is joined by Doodlebug and Ladybug Mecca.
2. A Saturnian philosopher/practitioner of a mysterious and little-heard musical form known as jazz, which may come up later in this book.
3. The closest thing to a black metal cube in the rain forest is a panther, which is a pitiful excuse for a big cat. Why settle for less? Though, I do admit, I wish there were black tigers.