For today, you can call Douglas Martin, Ishmael.
Within the first minute of Black Up, Ishmael Butler conjures an incredibly loaded image. “I cried with Mooch at Papi’s wake / Snuck an extra slice of cake / When the pigs came ‘round to make they case / I looked them dead up in they face / ‘I never heard of none of that,’” he raps over ominous 808s and frayed wires. With the wobbly social climate permeating throughout Seattle these days– one so rife with police brutality that the Department of Justice has had to intervene– any Emerald City artist would be well within their right to make a 2011 update of “Fuck the Police”.
But on “free press and curl,” Butler occupies the territory of the culturally aware everyman, neither ultraviolent superthug nor hand-wringing moralizer. The rapid-fire imagery and circumfluent poetry is complimented by phrases waiting to be adopted as sloganeering by the shallowly high-minded: “Philosophy is cruelty!” “Deception is the truest act!” “Up or don’t toss it at all!” The repeated chanting of the latter– clearly a call to arms for uplift and progression– leads into the compromised feeling one gets from freedom, saying that no matter how free we think we are, we’re all still bound by the servitude of one concept or another.
It’s hard to resist the urge to play the role of roulette croupier and draw an endless number of conclusions from whatever line on Black Up that you land on. Butler’s words burst from the seams with meaning and pathos, each grouping both inhabiting its own space and being threaded with the others to elevate the song at large. The lyrics come in a variety of rhythms: clipped, bouncy, staggered, fluid, choppy. Inanimate objects litter the floors of every scene, whether discarded by kings or by materialistic paupers looking for the next shiny, new thing. Butler shakes his head at the latter, lamenting their “ideas in recline” and squinting his eyes while threateningly repeating, “Who do you think you are?” at them on “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum”. “yeah you” is a scathing indictment of rappers who’ve traded in the black experience in for stacks of bills (or, as Butler puts it succinctly, “corny niggas”) over the sounds of dissonant bass, distorted drums, and the clicking of loaded guns, adopting spoken-word poetry to deliver his message: “To make they wealth, they’ll break theyself.” On “Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt),” Butler intones, “I can’t explain it with words, I have to do it,” displaying his modus operandi in the exact same way he did in my interview with him. Another, from “Recollections of the wraith”: “The shit I pop is heated, ‘cause I love it and I mean it.” Whether taking soft-shoeing rappers to task or imagining himself floating in the constellations, Butler’s words are marked with feeling.
Black Up has repeatedly been described as being beamed in from the future, which is somewhat of a half-truth. With its discordant, electronic-driven beats– pulsating and throbbing, tinged with acid jazz, traditional African folk music, and elements of IDM– the record is assuredly a product of 2011, but what we would have imagined 2011 to sound like when we were children, when we thought flying cars and Mattel Hoverboards would have been our primary methods of transportation. It’s a suicide cocktail containing decades of music, chopped and diced and fragmented, a mishmash of different worlds coexisting in the same realm. It’s definitely not seamless, but the effect is intentional; you’re supposed to feel the stitches, you’re supposed to feel where one section ends and another begins.
Serving as somewhat of an art-damaged, Pacific Northwestern distant cousin of the spacey, blunted bounce of LA‘s Brainfeeder crew, Black Up full of dystopian cries (the aforementioned “An echo…”), freight train synths and ominous buzzing (“Youlogy”), blurry loops sharing face time with woodwinds (“The King’s new clothes were made with his own hands”), a dusky, buzzing, electronic take on New Orleans jazz (“Endeavors for Never (The last time we spoke you said you were not here. I saw you though.)”). Whereas the rap Butler rallies against is safe and digestible, his music with Shabazz Palaces offer a defiantly avant-garde counterpart, a brick through the boutique Nike store window. But, for all the darkness and disjointedness on Black Up, there are some genuinely light moments. “Recollections of the wraith” contains a springy bounce and soulful background cooing while Butler shines like a spectator at the Thrilla in Manila, while “A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)” is an actual love song, complete with allusions to the sounds of springtime, over synthesizer gurgles and underwater laser-shooting guns. There is a wide range of emotional ground covered on Black Up, and to place the album in specific thematic box would be to limit its breadth.
It’s appropriate that Butler referenced Alexander McQueen on “Youlogy”. While so many other rappers have played the role of shallow fashionista (Louis Vuitton, Gucci) or callous businessman (Rocawear, Billionaire Boys Club, a bunch of other rapper-run clothing labels that have floundered), Ishmael Butler picks the designer known foremost for turning fashion into high-art, instilling a visionary sense of high-concept into a realm constantly derided for its vapidity. If you’re reading this blog, I don’t need to convince you that hip-hop is a substantially valid art form, but in the years since becoming immersed into American culture, cynical cash-grabbers see the genre as a style, a commodity. After a series of forward-thinking EP’s, Black Up shows that Shabazz Palaces are determined to journey to the outer margins of hip-hop and come back with priceless treasure. It shows that Ishmael Butler is deeply interested in the forward movement of hip-hop as a genre, in its progression. Up or don’t toss it at all, indeed.