The Last Don: The Return of Shabazz Palaces

Chris Robinson explores the astral plane of the Seattle rap legend's fifth LP under the Shabazz Palaces name.
By    April 21, 2020

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Chris Robinson‘s gotta get his portion, he’s gotta get his money.

Ever since their revelatory 2011 full length debut Black Up, Shabazz Palaces have been the vanguards of splintering and diffracting sonic and lyrical meanings. The Don of Diamond Dreams continues this mission while carving out its own corner of the Shabazz Palaces cosmos. It marks several firsts for the group. It’s the first album without Tendai Maraire; the first with Ish on the cover; and the first to feature a song clearly grounded in Ish’s personal life. As the lead vocalist in Shabazz Palaces, Ish has always more or less been the face of the group. But on The Don of Diamond Dreams his centrality is confirmed; he has become the Don. 

He claims his title right away on “Ad Ventures.” A pile-driving bass note sets the foundation for the slow, lumbering beat. Electric bass fills the spaces between the kick drum and dirty snare. Filigrees of crystalline bells and plucked guitar strings color the air. Taking the moonlight as his guide, Ish is grabbing cash, cruising the city on a night ship, floating down waterfalls, and scaling mountains. The language is lush: there are diamond showers and purple clouds, shining Egyptian gold, his eyes burn embers like emeralds. For most people a picture is worth a thousand words. A single word from Ish commands a much higher premium. 

Along with conjuring evocative imagery, Ish toasts himself with an inventiveness few can match. He sums this up on “Chocolate Souffle,” simply explaining that “cool phrases collect in the pools of my intellect.” Built on a brash, herky-jerky beat, the song is a highlight reel that checks off all the boast boxes: his flow (“my soliloquy is killer bee”); his women (“I’m a movie she wanna part”); his paper (“tipped a stack to the gondolier”); his competitors (“I’m quenched, he’s parched”); his ego (“five Nigerian space queens sing my chorus”).

The song ends with a comprehensively dizzying synthesis of all of the above: “her inhibitions melt like candle wax/I’m dressed to kill/in the Seville with the fifth wheel/keep the ice grill but still, wheel and deal with sex appeal/boy chill before I give you the Benadryl/the incentive is bending bills pursue tremendous thrills and don’t get killed.” This final flourish makes it clear that Ish is indeed “at the zenith of slick demeanor.” 

His talk is so multilayered and oblique that by the time you think you’ve got a grasp on it (although you’re never sure you do), he’s already long gone. Nothing he offers comes in a straight line. If he was a boxer he’d be Money Mayweather or Pernell Whitaker. He’s a cerebral, tactical counterpuncher who gives weird angles and who’s never been cut, let alone touched. He doesn’t even have to land a punch to send his foes to the canvas. He just watches as they fumble to keep up and eventually knock themselves out. 

As the Don, Ish may be at the top, but that doesn’t put him above training the next generation. On “Fast Learner” he sets the stage for Purple Tape Nate, who proves to be an ace student by establishing his credentials with surgical wordplay that’s filtered through a haze of auto-tune. Is Nate another one of Ish’s alter-egos who sounds like what Ish might be if he was his son Jazz aka Lil Tracy’s age? Is Nate Lil Tracy in disguise? Is he a rapper using a pseudonym to escape contractual obligations? But wondering over details gets in the way of appreciating the music. The medium-slow tempo, drums that somehow sound huge and sparse at the same time, synths that seep into every corner, and dreamy wordless vocals that dissipate into the ether give the song a cinematic scope.

“Fast Learner” isn’t for the party—it’s what you put on to vibe out to after everybody’s gone home.

“Money Yoga” continues “Fast Learner’s” juxtaposition of generations. A trap beat built around a bass bomb and a crisp hi-hat is all the support Ish needs to chant “I gotta get my portion/I gotta get my money.” As the song progresses the trap beat recedes into the background and is replaced by an alto sax solo. It’s as if the song begins in the present and travels back in time to a sound more reminiscent of Digable Planets.

The next cut “Thanking the Girls” finds Ish breaking character and paying tribute to his daughters. He’s no longer the Don, he’s just a proud father who wants to remind his kids that they can count on their dad. It’s personal and intimate, and unlike anything else in the band’s catalog. Even though both songs are clear it wouldn’t be a Shabazz Palaces record without taking listeners through two contradictory points of view (“all I think about money” to “bottom line rain or shine family”) in the space of a couple minutes.

Throughout the album, Ish gives numerous shout outs to Seattle’s Black Constellation collective of musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers. When he isn’t name dropping them, they’re sharing the stage with him. Most notably is frequent Shabazz Palaces collaborator Stas THEE Boss, who teams up with Ish on “Bad Bitch Walking” as they discover a woman who might be the only person who can match the Don.

The Don of Diamond Dreams is testament to Ish’s complete mastery of his art. Like any great surrealist poet, Ish stretches language to conjure images, stories, and modes of expression that prose just can’t reach. He’ll chop off part of a word if it means adding complexity to a rhyme scheme. He might put the same lyric in different songs to give it multiple lives. And like any virtuosic jazz or blues musician, he’ll switch up rhythmic patterns, drop accents or an extra word in unexpected places, repeat a phrase for added effect, or wholly depart from convention if convention is too limiting.

From Digable Planets to Cherrywine to Shabazz Palaces, Ish has refused to stay in one place. In that way, he’s like Miles Davis: he’s always evolving and growing, looking for new sounds and new methods to wrap his voice into. With The Don of Diamond Dreams it would be easy to say that Ish is at the peak of his powers and heap lavish praise upon this record. But really we have no idea where his peak is. There’s a lot more room in the Shabazz Palaces galaxy and a lot more firsts for Ishmael Butler to share.

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