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Shabazz Palaces continues to ‘Shine a Light’ for hip hop

| Monday, May 1, 2017

Shabazz Palaces_WEBLauren Hebig | The Observer

In 2009, the hip hop landscape was fracturing. Spiraling in the wake of landmark records like Kanye West’s synth-laden “Graduation” and Lil Wayne’s southern hip hop blockbuster “Tha Carter III,” artists were reaching for samples and sounds that would further shake the foundation of the genre. In 2010, Waka Flocka Flame would push crunk into the mainstream view while Eminem would release the poppiest and most commercially successful single of his career (“Love the Way You Lie”). It was a time where anything seemed possible for hip hop.

Even so, American hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces’ self-titled debut stood as remarkable in its distinctiveness. With lyrical gems like “My momma be a bright light on the dark side of town” (on “Capital 5 … ”) evocative of Langston Hughes’ vivid cityscapes and production which wove Middle Eastern rhythms and percussion over a floor-shaking bass, “Shabazz Palaces” exploded in the hip hop underground even as the group’s identity remained mysterious. Another excellent EP, “On Light,” dropped a month later to similar acclaim. Without so much as a debut LP to their name, Shabazz Palaces had already proven to be both more interesting and more technically accomplished than the grand majority of their contemporaries.

The group’s success became understandable as its members’ identities revealed themselves. Fronted by Digable Planets veteran Ishmael Butler and boasting production from multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire, Shabazz Palaces respectively contains an emcee with two classic records under his belt and the son of a master mbira musician. Butler’s snaking, textured flow remains one of the most distinctive in hip hop. It’s the perfect complement to Maraire’s consistently brilliant production, which threads percussion into bold, shifty patterns over a rich, low end. Maraire’s rhythms are often so complex as to defy toe-tapping completely, yet Butler navigates them with thrilling ease. This makes for music that is labyrinthine in construction yet delightfully palatable in delivery.

The group’s following to LPs, “Black Up” and “Lese Majesty,” further developed the Shabazz sound. “Black Up” stripped back each musical arrangement to its bare minimum, allowing single instruments to take turns dominating the soundfield while creating a spacey vibe throughout. “Lese Majesty” alternatively sprawled, its near 20-track run ricocheting through seven lyrical suites. Shabazz Palaces already boasts a track record of successful experimentation that is on par with groups three times its age. As such, the announcement of a new record this upcoming summer opens up the possibility of their establishment as one of alternative hip hop’s best-ever groups.

Leading off with the single “Shine a Light,” Shabazz Palaces asserts the likelihood of this event. “Shine a Light,” with its lush string sample and ethereal vocal hook, is one of the most traditional tracks the group has released to date. Yet, its tangled lyrics courtesy of Butler and the warmth of the production craft makes for a listening experience as powerful as anything Shabazz Palaces has released so far. As guest vocalist Thaddilac croons “Shine a light on the fake / This way my peeps can have it all,” you can hear Shabazz Palaces celebrating its gradual rise to more widespread recognition that has magically coincided with a continuation of its unique, challenging style. Its music seems as timeless as ever, and in 2017, that’s definitely something to celebrate.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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