We often take the application of “mystery” for granted, mainly because we’ve grown so used to the traditional breaking band, all tending to be purveyors of chillwave with a single song on a minimal-looking bandcamp page. It happens so often that we’ve grown cynical of it. But when a man several steps into his musical career, with bounds of experience, takes up the anonymity helm, we ought to take notice. To Ishmael Butler, we need not know about his age, his work with Digable Planets, or any of the other members who make up Shabazz Palaces. On Black Up, we’re asked to make no reference to any of the components, to simply sit back and digest this record with no prejudiced expectations. There is such a level of character bubbling from the top of these songs that this becomes a difficult instruction to follow. Think of it as the opposite of Kanye’s …Dark Twisted Fantasy; we need not care about which track Rihanna crops up on – instead we’re left to our own futile devices, to take each song as it comes.
And goodness, is it an experience. You can envisage this record becoming crippled and crushed by a stomping foot of hype, all on the back of criticial acclaim (sorry, Ishmael) and subsequent interviews and interest from newly-accustomed fans. This would be tragic. It is so detailed, so inventive and so unique that you’d rather it remain a mystery. In terms of experimenting with hip-hop as a genre, its conventional structure and form, there are many acts who do this better, with more gusto and expertise. cLOUDDEAD can force you into a state of trance with their stop-start, sample-heavy lab work. Shabazz Palaces, on the other hand, can put you into another state of mind altogether. The purpose is not to experiment for the sake of it – it’s to remind us all that norms in music only exist because we’re told that they do. The box is firmly on the ground and Butler’s somewhere up in space.
It doesn’t exactly ease you in, either. ‘Free Press and Curl’ begins the record as it means to end, exacting the art of combining throbbing bass and ice-cold percussion. Three minutes in, it becomes more sedated than its former self; childish and confident, the bass notes are playfully applied. These songs are almost self-deprecating; as soon as a melody finds its comfort, it gets thrown into the “done” pile and is forced to watch a mate steal the stage. This is certainly the case with ‘Youlogy’, which enters as a giant, beats bouncing off the walls, but as soon as you become accustomed, the whole piece collapses into a light, NY-vibe. ‘Are you…Can you…Were you?(Felt)’ meanwhile, commences with a barely-there, old-school sample, etching away and keeping itself scarce. Gradually it places one brick on top of another and builds masterfully with the help of slick beats and the mantra, “you can’t lie to yourself”. No song is the same.
The most conventional of efforts also happens to be the centrepiece. ‘Recollections of the wraith’ and its repeated line of “clear some space out, so we can space out” is likely to hold up as the most memorable of Black Up’s tiny little fragments. Butler sounds cocky and bloated with pride; “every word come out my mouth just sparkles up” he declares. By this point you’d believe anything he says, so wealthy is the range of talents explored in the previous six tracks. But it’s not until the closer, ‘Swerve… The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)’ that you’re left off balance with amazement. The production is so good it requires an essay of its own.
Butler and co. – whoever this co. happens to be – might find themselves under a gleaming spotlight if Black Up picks up momentum like it should. Although not the most complex of hip-hop releases in recent years, it stands out for its ability to transcend genres and to breathe life into the word “alternative” without provoking a chorus of sneers and jibes. You need not question who’s behind it. The only thing worth asking is, “how can this be bettered?”