The brainchild of Ishmael Butler (aka Butterfly of the 90s philosophical jazz rap trio Digable Planets) and his multi-instrumentalist neighbour Tendai Maraire (the son of a Zimbabwean mbria master), the Seattle-based duo first appeared anonymously in 2009 with a pair of EPs, Shabazz Palaces and Of Light. Their highly evolved and experimental sound soon caught the ear of local label Sub Pop, who promptly made them the first rap group on their roster.
With the financial backing of Sub Pop, Shabazz Palaces released two critically acclaimed LPs in the form of 2011’s Black Up and 2014’s Lese Majesty. Combining unconventional beats with an inventive blend of psychedelia and electronic experimentation, their cosmically-inclined philosophy follows on from Afrofuturist artists such as Sun Ra, Parliament-Funkadelic, Rammellzee and Kool Keith.
After a three year break, during which time Butler reassembled Digable Planets and Tendai worked on his side project Chimurenga Renaissance, the duo are back with not one but two brand new albums. Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star was recorded with Erik Blood in Seattle in just under a fortnight, not long after they returned from L.A. where the more collaborative Quazarz vs The Jealous Machines was completed with Sunny Levine, grandson of Quincy Jones, over the course of seven months.
Both albums tell the tale of a sentient being named Quazarz who has come to “the United States of Amurderca” to chronicle what he discovers, largely economic inequality, institutionalised racism and an unhealthy addiction to technology. With a combined total of 23-tracks (eleven on Gangster Star, twelve on Jealous Machines) and a run time just shy of 1 hour 20 mins, both albums are distinct from one another despite being tied together conceptually.
Gangster Star contains some of the most straight forward hip hop the duo have produced thus far, combining influences such as funk and electronic R&B into something that is, at least partially, anchored to the street. More closely related to the minimalist sounds of Black Up than it is to its more other worldly follow-up Lese Majesty, Gangster Star still contains plenty of spaced-out moments. The Thundercat featuring opener ‘Since C.A.Y.A.’ is a prime example, sounding like an outtake from Flying Lotus‘ last album You’re Dead!
Its accessibility makes Gangster Star easier to connect with than its sister album, at least at first. There are cuts like ‘Fine Ass Hairdresser’ with its funky, boom bap-inspired beat, and the Dee Dee Sharp sampling single ‘Shine a Light’ which also follows a more conventional rap blueprint. The catchy, funk-driven nature of many of its tracks, such as the smooth ‘Eel Dreams’ and the Quazarz anthem of sorts ‘Moon Whip Quäz’, are what make Gangster Star the more instantly enjoyable listen.
Jealous Machines on the other hand is conceptually much tighter, requiring repeated listens to fully reveal itself. Borrowing more heavily from psychedelia, as well as cloud and avant rap influences, its lyrics focus on our unhealthy relationship with smartphones and social media. The greater depth of Jealous Machines is also evident in its presentation, available with a book of illustrations by Joshua Ray Stephens. A short film directed by Nep Sidhu is also scheduled to be released alongside it.
Butler is arguably among today’s finest rappers, but his stargazing rhymes and dark sociopolitical poetry can take time to decipher. His self-description as “a glitch in the matrix” on Jealous Machines opener ‘Welcome to Quazarz’ couldn’t be more accurate. There are very few MCs out there as distinctive and creative as he is, both lyrically and sonically. Not only is he the mastermind behind the rhymes, he also creates much of the music and co-produces all of their records, with Tendai contributing percussion and vocals along with some production duties.
On ‘Gorgeous Sleeper Cell’ and ‘Self-Made Follownaire’ Butler paints a picture of social media as an instrument of distraction and control with lines like: “Watching all the currents enticing my mind / Gluttons for distraction swiping all the time” and “Illuminati thoughts trying to scratch my mind’s cream”. Elsewhere, ’30 Clip Extension’ contains a passage about a popular MC being “preyed on by adoring fans” via their Instagram account, while on the brilliantly titled ‘Love in the Time of Kanye’ Butler cautions against jumping on the latest social media bandwagon. If anyone says hip hop is void of creativity they clearly haven’t been looking in the right places.
Released: 14th July 2017
Label: Sub Pop
Length: 35:21 / 41:47
Production: Erik Blood (Gangster Star), Sunny Levine (Jealous Machines) and Ishmael Butler
Rating: Decent 8