Will Schube knows you don’t really GET Talib Kweli.
Ishmael Butler goes by many names. There’s the name he was given at birth—often affectionately shortened to Ish—that he rocked during the Digable Planets days. Sometimes he went by Butterfly, too. Then Butler disappeared for a while, receding into the ether, only to re-emerge 15 years later with a revolutionized afrofuturistic rap project called Shabazz Palaces. In that duo, he goes by the name Palaceer Lazaro…sort of. It doesn’t really matter. All of these nicknames and characters are abstractions. At the heart of the Shabazz Palaces project is a fascinating, breathtaking, avant-garde overhaul of rap music. Names can only take you so far.
Over the course of two EPs and two full-lengths, Butler and collaborator Tendai Maraire have turned rap music into an intergalactic experiment, an organized endeavor in which intangibles lead the way: feelings, emotions, sounds. The music equates aesthetics with words—a far cry from Butler’s early days as a spitter’s spitter with Digable Planets. It’s the platonic ideal of conscious rap music, before it was co-opted by college philosophy students and Talib Kweli stans. Butler’s words—his sounds, really—infiltrate the recesses of your brain and firmly plant themselves there. This music is simultaneously unnerving and the most soothing style in the world.
Shabazz is back with Born on a Gangster Star, out July 14th on Sub Pop. The record’s first single, “Shine a Light,” is the most straightforward thing the duo has done. The drums are dusty and the sample is earthly. There’s no intergalactic communion needed to summon this song. It’s an outlier on the record, with Butler’s smooth voice the only thing connecting “Shine a Light” from the rest of the album’s metallic dirt sheen. Butler’s probably the best rapper alive who’s words don’t really matter—the rhymes are insanely sharp but the sounds and tones mean so much more. “Shine a Light” may feel like a step towards rap’s center, but it’s proof that Shabazz can move both ways. Sometimes you need to land that UFO on Earth to remember that space is the place.