Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines/ Born On A Gangster Star
The state of hip-hop, as seen from the cosmos
by Jericho Cerrona
Getting a proper handle on Seattle duo Shabazz Palaces remains a futile enterprise. When their debut Black Up materialized out of the Internet ether in 2011, it signaled the reemergence of a brand of abstract hip-hop most closely aligned to artists like Flying Lotus, Madlib, and MF DOOM. Featuring the talents of Ishmael Butler (a.k.a. Palaceer Lazaro, formerly of jazz rap unit Digable Planets), and multi-instrumentalist Tendai "Baba" Maraire, the duo occupied a niche within the hip-hop community prizing sonic experimentation and bizarre thematic concerns over recycled club bangers. 2014's Lese Majesty followed; a psychedelic free-jazz rap epic which bucked conventions and was even more lyrically obtuse than their debut. This has all lead to the simultaneously released Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, which is like listening to an alien life form's diary entries while traveling through interstellar prog-rap portals. Or something. The brilliance of Shabazz Palaces has always been their ability to confound, obfuscate, and challenge the listener, and their latest madcap astral projection of contemporary America is no exception.
Narratively speaking, the two records are linked by Butler playing the role of Quazarz, a sentient being sent from some distant galaxy to patrol two dystopian parallel versions of America. The results are thrilling weird (as expected), but also connected to a familiar horror present in the modern day black experience. We post-language, baby, we talk with guns, Butler raps on "Welcome to Quazarz", a cogent reminder that this is no imagined dreamscape, but an actual reality. Elsewhere, on cuts like "Late Night Phone Calls", we are faced with the intangibility of human contact dispersed through post-Tinder language, while "Eel Dreams" reimagines our content-saturated existence as an electro-fueled series of hazy beats. Of the two records, Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines is the more accessible; with melodic song structures that poke at our reliance on digital technology. Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star is the much more abstract listen, but together the albums form a world-building paradigm which Shabazz Palaces milks for whatever specific or non-specific themes one wishes to pull from them. In a way, the duo are creating defiant art while trolling an audience that will likely overpraise or dismiss them for being "challenging" and "polarizing."
Like a lot of artists these days, Shabazz Palaces are obsessed with the idea of being slaves to a screen-based digital landscape where commercialization of content is king. Even Arcade Fire, those unhip indie rock stalwarts, have traded in the earnest bombast for cynical commentary on vain Instagram culture on their latest LP, Everything Now. However, unlike Arcade Fire, Butler and Maraire make no attempts at unlocking their labyrinthine conceptual framework. Instead, they drop bread crumbs (interstellar sex, mechanical computer parts, Frank Herbet allusions, political mumbo-jumbo) that can either be viewed as giving listeners interpretive power or simply blowing celestial moon dust up their asses. Of course, all of this is foregrounded by woozy, lo-fi instrumentals which rarely stick around long enough to land a sustainable groove. Even the more dance-heavy tracks, like "Fine Ass Hairdresser", stutters away it's initial beat-driven sound, while the thumping groove on "That's How City Life Goes" gives way to a herky jerky rhythm which stimulates the brain while leaving the hips in a constant state of flux.
As a distillation of jazzy hip-hop in the Brainfeeder mold, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star is a daring, if obtuse, project that nearly topples over into self-parody. What keeps everything from devolving into prog cosmos-spanning nonsense is Butler's keen ability to tie the high concept into something resembling life in the here and now. Police brutality, capitalism, and the ways in which rap music has been utilized as a diseased form of materialism are key themes. During "30-Clip Extension", Butler lets loose one of his more searing verses; Flossing in a peripheral sanity / chauvinist with feminine vanities / Puffing out his tattoo’d chest / towering his arrogance / Monetizing intelligence / all while narrowing our elegance / Parodying Our sufferance for a pittance like a pence penance / Some bitch shit so that’s your favorite rapper and he’s the best? Crucially, he's mocking not only egotistical MCs, but also hip-hop culture at large, performed in a hushed flow that feels even more biting than if delivered as a hardcore rant.
Taken together, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines and Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star at times feels more like an art installation piece rather than a coherent hip-hop album--heavy on science fiction, tech phobia, and skeletal drum loops--low on easily accessible song structures, but there's legitimate ambition here. Call it Afro-futurism, abstract sci-fi rap, whatever. Mostly, it sees Butler and company looking forward by reaching backward; whether that be through the prism of 90s hip-hop traditionalism or imaginary worlds as seen from distant planets.