Review Summary: Clear some space out, so we can space out.
Since his arrival on the hip-hop scene as Butterfly in seminal early-90s group Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler has shape shifted through various identities, struggling for a voice as powerful as Digable Planets. He moved out of New York and back to Seattle, his hometown. Cherrywine, his early 2000s genre-fusing rap group only made one album with little commercial success. He appeared on UK drum-and-bass side projects and adapted various names like Cheewa on the official credits.
After floating around on various insignificant guest features for nearly a decade, Butler finally made a powerful appearance on Jake One’s “Home”, a Seattle posse cut where Butler (known as Ish on the track) closes out the song (and album) with, to that point, his best verse since Digable Planets. The video shows gray in his beard, but his flow, style, and youthful energy do not betray Butler’s age. This hardly sounds like the guy who rapped, “Our funk zooms like you hit the Mary Jane/They flock to booms, man, boogie had to change,” on the classic Planets cut “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”. Instead, on “Home”, Butler sounds fresh and vital, the “town rap scholar” who knows the scene and its history better than anyone. Without background knowledge, it would be hard to know he rapped in Digable Planets.
Next, Butler leapt into the shadows again, but this time, he re-emerged with a superb new group, Shabazz Palaces, and a new name, Palaceer Lazaro. For consistency's sake, I will continue to refer to him as Ishmael Butler. After two mysterious but promising EPs, Black Up
brings Butler back to the forefront of hip-hop, showcasing a modern, abstract style of rapping and production.
It’s significant, then, that despite Butler’s evolution and complete re-identification, the last time his voice appears on the album, he makes a reference to a Digable Planets song. On “Swerve... the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)”, he raps, “Black is you, black is me, black is us, black is free,” recalling Digable Planets’ “Escapism (Gettin’ Free)”, closing, which uses “funk” instead of “black.” On Black Up
, Butler comes full circle and escapes his past while embracing it. “I’m free,” he repeats on opener “free press and curl”.
It’s also significant that the transcription from the Digable Planets song is not a perfect one. Ladybug, the female member of Digable Planets, repeats the four statements the same way each time in “Escapism”: "Funk is you, funk is me, funk is us, funk is free," repeated ad nauseam. Butler changes it up each time so that the first three words of the line cycles through the four statements while the rest of the line remains the same: “Black is YOU
, black is me, black is us, black is free/ Black is ME
, black is me, black is us, black is free/ Black is US
..." Butler has not simply returned to his Digable Planets greatness; he has evolved beyond it.
is at first mind-bending and perhaps confusing in its production and aesthetic, making it easy to lump in with fringe rap artists cLOUDDEAD. But to do so ignores the visceral qualities of the album, both in Butler’s lyrics and in the production. Where cLOUDDEAD rests on its eerie, spaced-out laurels, Shabazz Palaces emotes. “Recollections of the wraith” drops its beat with a soulful, immediate female vocal sample. “Clear some space out, so we can space out,” Butler says, inviting the listener into the album’s sonic world rather than isolating.
Even more inviting are the sounds of familiarity hidden in the unique style of the album. Just as on the Jake One track, Butler has upped his game to incorporate many different flows, none of them the outdated jazz-rap style he helped popularize in Digable Planets. On “free press and curl”, he makes use of so much inner rhyme he sounds more like Earl Sweatshirt. “Yeah you” is, just as much of the album, a response to the commercialization of hip-hop, but is not a highbrow, academic treatment of the subject. The de-tuned vocals and dark, bassy synths create a gritty track for Butler to unleash on “corny ni**ers.” It’s not much more than a diss track done perfectly, just as “A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)” is a sexual, intricate love song done perfectly. But perhaps the most striking lyrical moments of the album are the simplest. “It’s a feeling!” Butler repeats on “Are you... Can you... Were you? (Felt)” “How fast do you want it?” he asks on “Youlogy”, only to slow down the beat even further.
These topics of familiarity, and the directness with which Butler engages them, throws the warped, abstract production into sharp relief. “A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)” doesn’t sound like much of a love song -- stark and somewhat cold. “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” bases its first beat around a stretched, destroyed vocal sample until everything drops for an mbira solo. These sounds are unlike any other, even the aforementioned cLOUDDEAD, and it backs up Butler’s rally against commercial hip-hop.