Shabazz Palaces Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star / Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines SubPop

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Omitting 2016’s Live at Third Man Records release, it’s been three years since Shabazz Palaces released an album. So, how have Ishmael Butler – formerly of the jazz-spritzed, 90s hip-hop trio Digable Planets – and multi-instrumentalist partner Tendai Maraire occupied their minds during this period of radio silence? You could speculate that Ish’s job as an A&R for Sub Pop has dominated most of his creative agenda over the past few years; selflessly channelling his talents through the minds of future aspiring stars rather than focusing on his own musical journey. But now, the duo have surged with a wealth of new material: Shabazz Palaces return with not one, but two albums of afrofuturist rap escapism.

These two epic albums chronicle the sentient being known as Quazarz, who is sent to a fictional land known as ‘Amurderca’ as a musical emissary. Record one, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, introduces our protagonist within a brutal backdrop of bigotry and disorder. Whether Butler and Maraire use the story of Quazarz to parody that of our own social environs is only subtly portrayed throughout the duration of the album. However, as the wisp of reverberated strings echo out on tracks such as Fine Ass Hairdresser and skeletal drum loops bounce around Butler’s buttery flow on That’s How City Life Goes, there seems frequent nods to this gross political lunacy Quazarz has surrounded himself in. “Sliding cornered by more law enforcements,” Ish raps on Shine a Light, “Feelin’ like I’m riding with The Four Horsemen.” On When Cats Claw, he hits out at the arrogance of some nondescript peer; “Everything you claim, no proof/ Tryna do his thang, no use/ You gon’ check my chains.”

The concept is further developed in record two, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. Here, Shabazz describe their universe’s perverse relationship with tech-devices, soundtracked by freakishly sexual, hellishly funky synth lines. Tracks such as Gorgeous Sleeper Cell, Julian’s Dream (ode to a bad) and Love in the time of Kanye shift restlessly between oddly psychedelic bass manipulation to polytonal digitised vocal bending. The overall result is overtly seductive. At times, the minimalism veers towards the familiar realms of cloud rap, but thankfully Butler’s storytelling is so engrossing and substantial that any notes of instrumental gimmickry disappear.

Together, this series of records is by far the most demanding body of work released by Shabazz Palaces so far, which is astounding considering it was apparently recorded in a mere two weeks. If consumed separately, the first episode of the saga – with all its string arrangements and funk-laden time signatures – may be the more accessible and plush. However, the reward here is fully immersing yourselves into Quazarz’ world in its entirety. With this double bill, Shabazz Palaces have succeeded in painting one of the most colourful and explorative parallel dimensions in recent hip-hop history.

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