Shabazz Palaces has been one of the more engaging acts in hip hop ever since their debut landed in 2011. The group’s unique dynamic, incorporating the enigmatic lyrics/flow of Ishmael Butler with low-key reverb-heavy beats accentuated by exotic instrumentation from Tendai Maraire, make them an enjoyable oddity that’s always worth looking out for. Ishamel’s own esoteric lyrical sensibilities always seem to find ways to resonate with listeners as, despite their generally cryptic nature, reflect very real concerns about mankind’s relationship with itself, technology, and even modern rap music. These views are taken to an even greater ambitious extreme on the group’s latest musical outing, the double album release Quazarz: Born on a Gangaster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines: a pair of releases about an interstellar alien sent as an ambassador to a caricatured version of America and feeling judgmental about the state of everything.
Ishamel’s usual societal hang-ups are as present as ever, but they’re given an increased emphasis thanks to the nature of the concept. The alien Quazarz is mostly representative of the root of his own views on technology, modern rap music, etc. while another version of himself with the expected moniker of Palaceer Lazaro acts as the alien’s sole human contact. Sympathetic to Quazarz’s gripes, he becomes a cypher for his own venting and how we experience his critiques of the so-called “Amurderca”.
Palaceer’s own personal life and how it relates to the bigger narrative is just as much a focal point of the concept as the whole alien conceit. In a handful of songs on first disc, we get a sense of Palaceer’s life on Earth and some of the interesting aspects as well as the mundanities of it as presented in the tracks “Fine Ass Hairdresser” and “The Neurochemical Mixalogue.” The latter portrays a sort of romantic setting from the point of view of an observer telling the crowd to get together with that special someone they all love, while the former has him engaging in some philosophical dialogue about the state of life with (presumably) a hairdresser. In addition, “That’s How City Life Goes” is a nice little mood piece that just mumbles the title over and over again through in the back half, complimented by a quiet synthetic bass riff and simple drums. Meanwhile on the second disc, the tracks “Effeminence” and “Julian’s Dream (ode to a bad)” seemingly convey Palaceer’s feelings about certain relationships of his, missing his mom and also an important lover in his life. That’s just one facet of this rather dense release.
The dissatisfaction with trap rap and mainstream hip hop is of equal importance, made somewhat clear in the first few tracks of the first disc, with “Since CAYA” introducing us to Quazarz as a seemingly omnipresent figure with a great deal of importance within the universe. “When Cats Claw” and “Shine A Light” both display Quazarz’s perception of most rap music as hollow and vain, with the latter focusing on exposing the fakeness of such rappers, hence the title. On the second disc, this motif gets brought further to the spotlight as Quazarz becomes more central to the presentation of the concept. “Gorgeous Sleeper Cell” poses the question of “God, who came first? The rapper or the trapper?” as it also questions why the ability to buy diamonds and weed are now an accepted measure of “realness.” Other frustrations of his involve the vanity of modern society as expressed in “Self Made Follownaire” (Well-known nobodies. A murder mouth with no body. Self-loathing narcissist. Body-sized icons). This is on top of the earlier track “Parallax,” an interlude of sorts which has Quazarz in communication with his own species, as the track name-drops the brands Gucci, Louis, Prade, and Dolce & Gabbana: brands that have been referenced in that particular order by rappers like Meek Mill, Twista, and even Kreayshawn.
The centerpiece of the album, and also easily the best track between the two, is the single “30 Clip Extension”. The lyrics depict Quazarz presumably lecturing the Palaceer and contain a very ominious vibe as they seem to bounce back and forth between multiple tones of voice. The first verse repeats the phrase “Ghost. Writers” in between observations about the genre and its purveyors, and these become clearer in the second verse. The voices begin to unsubtly repeat the phrase “Your favorite rapper” in between critiques of prominent trends in mainstream rap (His jaws clinched in a xanax glow (Your favorite rapper)/ He’s a chauvinist with feminine vanities (Your favorite rapper). He’s puffing out his tattooed chest (Man, look at your favorite rapper)). It’s a fantastic tune with some clever observations and wordplay, accentuated by a sort-of numbing beat accentuated by a hazy pseudo-guitar melody that puts the listener in a delirious headspace like they’re just about to come down from a bad hangover. It is easily one of Shabazz Palaces’ best tunes from both a lyrical and musical front.
While on the subject, the music and beat selection here is as offbeat and minimal as ever, incorporating the expected high degrees of reverberation as well as a mixture of soothing and ominous electronics where appropriate. The usage of various other bits of instrumentation also helps flesh out the vibe of each track, such as on “Since CAYA” which features some unnerving warped synths complimented by bass guitar courtesy of none other than Thundercat. “Welcome To Quazarz” shows off Maraire’s own mbira talents to accentuate the afro-futurist vibe of Quazarz’s home world. The warbled alien-like synths permeate much of the records like on “The SS Quintessence”, which sounds like teleporting through multiple worlds and dimensions, or “Self Made Follownaire” which is prominently driven by a very breathy percussion track with the snare hits sounding like they are being played in reverse.
In addition to these moody experimental pieces, a handful of tracks have a much quirker and occasionally serene tone to them. “Effeminence” is particularly sentimental in its production, as well as “Love In The Time of Kanye” with its lullaby-like melody. “Julian’s Dream (ode to a bad)” is the quirkiest song on the record with its bouncy bass and breathy vocals, and probably the most beautiful sounding track is the aforementioned “Shine A Light”, which is built off an excellently used sample of Dee Dee Sharp’s “I Really Love You” and complimented with frequent collaborator Thadillac’s lush auto-tuned vocals.
While the record is quite strong in several respects, occasionally the concept of the record can get a little muddied by the dense multi-layered perspectives presented. While mysterious and abstract lyrics and presentation are a given with Shabazz Palaces, because of the nature of the story here, it can occasionally become disorienting to figure out what precisely is going on and who exactly is delivering these various monologues about relationships, the burdens of technology, and trap rappers. The voices blur together into one entity often, which seems to occasionally undermine the purpose of having the concept be this elaborate. Despite this minor gripe, the two Quazarz albums represent the most ambitious releases yet from the Seattle duo and a perfect example of why they continue to be one of the most eccentric duos in current hip hop. Don’t pass up these albums at all.
Verdict: Buy it. Join the fanbase. Join us. Join us. Join up.
Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines are available from Sub Pop Records on CD, vinyl, cassette, digital download (iTunes, Bandcamp, etc.) and streaming services.
[Note: A copy of both albums was provided by Sub Pop Records for the purpose of this review.]