Shabazz Palaces Robed in Rareness Sub Pop
What Ishmael Butler doesn’t know about hip-hop probably isn’t worth dwelling on. A veteran of the genre, the Seattle-born MC has studied and shaped its evolution, constantly finding new directions to push its already porous boundaries. Robed in Rareness, his latest album under his Shabazz Palaces guise, walks a tightrope between innovation and homage, experimenting with – and even directly platforming – the sounds of a new generation of on-mic talent, including his own son.
Robed in Rareness follows 2020’s The Don of Diamond Dreams and serves as a turning of the page in the heavy tome that is the Shabazz Palaces catalogue. While The Don saw Butler and his collaborators embracing big guitar riffs and post-internet trap, Rareness comes with a much more concentrated aesthetic; across its seven tracks, the beats are glassy, the bass claustrophobic, and the overall vibe is one of unshakable paranoia.
Opening track Binoculars begins with Butler commanding, “Slow down, you moving all jittery, man/ We only want chill vibes over here”, as if pre-empting the unsettling effect of many of the record’s instrumentals. Butler then drops into a serene, composed flow; his pitched-up voice glissades over a loop of crystalline synth and reversed vocal samples that evoke dispatches from another galaxy. Through his extraterrestrial filter, Butler casually throws out bars like, “How could I fugaze/ The gangsters they hear me and shoegaze”, nonchalantly reminding the listener that while he may be better known as an experimentalist these days, the MC formerly known as Butterly has been, and always will be, a rapper’s rapper.
Butler isn’t afraid of taking cues from his current peers, though – or his own kids. Of the record’s seven tracks, six feature guest MCs. Woke Up in a Dream features his son Jazz Ishmael Butler, aka Lil Tracy, a rising spitter, close affiliate of the late emo rap icon Lil Peep, and early member of the Odd Future-but-sadder collective GothBoiClique. The track is suitably hazy and gothic, full of brooding chords punctuated by breathy exhales and ad-libs that evoke plumes of purple smoke. Once again, the Butlers balance the new and the old with lyrics that nod to Butler Sr.’s longevity – “Every time I bless a script it’s a precedent/ Of the jiggy OGs I’m the president” – and cheeky flexes such as, “Double G’s repeating patterns/ I got rings like Saturn”. On the track Butler refers to his son as his “idol”. Likewise, Butler has previously professed his admiration for the likes of Lil B and the influence of the BasedGod’s meme-adjacent rap – as well as the druggy post-trap of Awful Records and its founder Father – ring clear on the track with its tongue-in-cheek spin on the genre’s conventions.
But even the best scientists occasionally fail at their experiments, and Butler is no exception. Scarface Mace aims for Griselda meets Blade Runner with waves of theremin and electronic organ building under rapper O Finess’ stone-faced verse. However the combination often ends up leaving the track feeling lost in the ether, Finess’ bars sometimes vanishing into a burst of synth. Similarly, Butler’s overuse of vocal filters can leave listeners squinting their ears to try and catch some of his punchlines, and, in places – like in the overly busy mid-section of Cinnamon Bun – the noisiness of the beats can be disorienting.
Things pick up again, though, with the arrival of Camp Lo’s Geechi Suede on Gel Bait. After a healthy dose of shit-talk, a scuzzy funk intro kicks the track into life and the conspiratorial vibe of the record gives way to full-blown menace. Both MCs threaten and posture, blasts of horns blaring in the background. Who else but Butler could deliver the couplet, “I’m a constellation delegate/ So yeah I’m highly uncelibate”? The whole thing sounds like the opening theme of a WWE wrestler a hundred years in the future.
In the accompanying press release for the record, Butler promises that Rareness is just the first in a series of new offerings from Shabazz Palaces. In that vein, closing track Hustle Crossers – the one track without a guest feature – presents the end of this leg of the journey, and the start of the next. Butler’s vocals are at their clearest, almost spoken over a swirling, Angelo Badalamenti-esque lament. “Did everything I touch get in the way of what I’m reaching for?” he questions, defiance and bravado replaced with a more sorrowful tone. “I asked the Overlord to take me away from here.” And off he goes again, searching for a new sonic planet on which to build his next Palace.