Shabazz Palaces see only posers on the front lines.
Ever since the release of their first LP, Black Up, Shabazz Palaces has been the most experimental, probing rap duo since OutKast at their furthest reaches. The futuristic beats employed by Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire bear full fruit on their latest efforts, the companion albums Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines. On each, Butler, a.k.a. Palaceer Lazaro, takes on the guise of Quazarz, a spacetrotting alien who makes his way to Earth riding astral waves of trap. Though the latter album follows the first in general narrative progression, these records do not make for a double album so much as two rigidly distinct but nonetheless intertwined works, each pushing the duo into different territory.
Born on a Gangster Star begins decidedly on Earth’s surface, with lyrics that sink into generic rap braggadocio distilled through the tedium of hypermodernity, so that the cockiest delivery of opener “Since C.A.Y.A.” can be found on the line “Man, I can’t even remember my last tweet.” The jazzy music on the track clashes artfully with the navel-gazing posturing of the lyrics, though it also complements the words, particularly in a circulating double-bass progression that constantly ambles upward in an attempt to take flight only to collapse back in a state of arrested development. Quazarz appears on the next track, “When Cats Claw,” and he immediately dismisses this mindset. Butler’s vocals enter through dubbed-out echoes, intercepted transmissions from deep space that decode as burns.
The album drifts along the cosmos with the character, lyrics gradually fading in importance in favor of instrumental explorations. “Shine a Light” finds Butler’s words starting to break apart, with internal rhymes turning each line into a brief but complete thought, all as an extended sample of the gliding strings of Dee Dee Sharp’s 1965 R&B hit “I Really Love You” distance the perspective from the more grounded opening tracks by ironically stretching into the past. From there, though, it’s all about space, be it the neon basslines of hyper-literal wet dream “Eel Dreams” or the blaring klaxons that slice through sluggish keyboards on “The Neurochem Mixalogue.” “Dèese du Sang” sounds like Vangelis’s Blade Runner score undergirded by clipped percussion, the elegant synth moans converted into ad hoc slow-dance music for the future. The range of the programming is impressive even by the duo’s usually outré standard, especially on a track like “That’s How City Life Goes,” which transitions from a twinkling, quasi-ambient opening into the kind of harsh electro-rockabilly of later, more accessible Suicide as if it were the most logical thing in the world.
Gangster Star ends with Quazarz firmly arrived on Earth, and Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines picks up with a more lyrically oriented LP that tracks the alien’s closer observations of humankind. If the first album made clear Shabazz Palaces’ disdain for contemporary culture, its follow-up only doubles down on the disgust. Dubbing the U.S. “the United States of Amurderca,” Butler proceeds to list things killed by modern society, from sex to pride to Prince himself. Butler proceeds to lay waste to what he deems the failures of the present, coining the apt term “self-made follownaires” to castigate a world in which fame is achieved not by ambitious artists seeking to prove their talent but “selfie stick samurais” who are “trapped in a free market.” Elsewhere, technology exerts an altogether more sinister impact, as heard on “The SS Quintessence,” which imagines gadget myopia unleashing catastrophe at the thumbs of unthinking, disconnected humans.
Art could provide a buffer against such selfishness, but Shabazz Palaces see only posers on the front lines. “30 Clip Extension” offers a brief, esoteric glimpse at the long history of pop music getting distracted from greater social responsibility by drugs and sex before putting contemporary rap in the crosshairs, erecting a strawman popular rapper who’s “a chauvinist with feminine vanities” and who’s “feeling numb, dressed dapper dumb.” (That another, unrelated track is named “Love in the Time of Kanye” feels scarcely coincidental.) The album makes several shoutouts to Atlanta, including a tribute in “Atlaantis” that apes the city’s trademark brand of woozy hip-hop, but for the most part it uses trap as the focal point of its music criticism, calling out both its sedentary aesthetic and flashy personae.
After the gliding electronics of Gangster Star, the narrow satiric instrumentation of Jealous Machines cannot help but come off as a stylistic regression. That’s narratively fitting, with Quazarz becoming akin to a rap version of David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, but it also locks the duo into a single sound in the way that is uncharacteristic for the group. That’s not to say that Shabazz Palaces don’t twist trap to suit their own ends; “The SS Quintessence” takes the genre’s spacious programming and makes dub that could score a dogfight in space, while “Julian’s Dream” briefly explodes halfway through into 8-bit chimes. And if the concept results in experimental sketches more than full tracks, both albums feature arresting songs that showcase the group’s handle on their unique style. Check “Fine Ass Hairdresser” on Gangster Star, which boasts a playfully retro beat that is giddily chopped and screwed into a distended groove. The best track on either album, “Effeminence,” is gorgeously strung out, a delicate ode that recalls Prince in its confident ability to use a feminine tone to praise femininity. With abstract, evocative lyrics, the song breaks with the didacticism of Jealous Machines to reconcile the separate aims of both albums, gentle proof that Shabazz Palaces may talk a bit more shit than usual this time out, but they can back it up by effortlessly gliding above nearly everyone else in the game right now.