Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler (aka Palaceer Lazaro) has always used fantasy and fiction to make salient observations about the real world we inhabit. As Butterfly from the ‘90s conscious rap group Digable Planets, he used psychedelic poetics to promote progressive values such as a woman’s right to choose. As Butler matured and evolved as a lyricist over the past two decades, his work became less literal and more literary. His imaginary world grew noticeably richer and his sonic palette, more experimental.
Shabazz Palaces’ new, two-album drop on Sub Pop Records, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines, exemplifies this evolution and builds on it to fascinating effect. The project is a work of Afro-futurist science fiction, born of Octavia Butler’s novels and Sun Ra’s astral jazz. The two albums tell the tale of Quazarz, an intergalactic emissary sent to earth to interact with its locals by way of music. He emerges with observations about hip-hop’s evolution from boom-bap to mumble rap, race in America and our collective dependence on technology.
The Quazarz backstory is explained on the Sub Pop website. But, however interesting, it’s not as readily apparent on the two albums as its press materials make out to be. Gangster Star, offers a rich fabric of gorgeous, reverb-laden sound, the work of the other Shabazz Palaces member, multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire, as well as a handful of musicians including Thundercat and Thaddillac. Their compositions build from lo-fi fuzz to improvisatory jazz drumming to driving funk. The album’s engaging musicianship makes Quazarz’s story feel cinematic the way a film score enhances a plot, especially with its psychedelic instrumentals like “Déesse Du Sang” and “The Neurochem Mixalogue.”
While Gangster Star is more about vibes than lyrics, Butler gets much more opinionated on Jealous Machines. On the opening track, “Welcome to Quazarz,” he riffs about “followers following, leading nowhere” and “moving targets for the markets.” Throughout Jealous Machines, Butler professes an anxiety over our society’s increasing digitization and shifting values. His weariness also extends to the changing tides in hip-hop. On “30 Clip Extension,” he calls out “your favorite rapper” with a series of scathing descriptions that critique the so-called “Soundcloud rap” wave: “his jaws clenched in a Xanax glow,” “fashioned by an unseen hand,” “a chauvinist with feminine vanities.”
Butler’s disgruntled observations sometimes make him sound like a ‘90s hip-hop purist, but his forward-thinking album concept and execution prove that he’s definitely not stuck in the era of his coming-of-age. Both installments of Quazarz attest to Shabazz Palaces’ inventiveness and imagination, and reveal new layers upon each listen. After all, creative thinkers like Butler and Maraire often do feel like aliens stuck on earth.