Experimental hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces’ 2014 album ‘Lese Majesty’ was an ambitious beast. Split up into seven suites that were indecipherable upon a cursory listen, it sometimes came across a bit like a mad galaxy of ideas thrown together into one strange universe that refused to be labelled. Upon their return, Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire have lost none of their determination to push the boundaries, deciding to release two albums on the same day.
‘Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star’ is the first, a collection that tells the story of a “sentient being from somewhere else” who becomes surrounded by “the ethers of the Migosphere here on Drake world” and found the “same self differents in those constellies that be Dai at my weap-side”. In essence, Butler uses the persona of Quazarz (a being, not a reference to the luminous cosmic phenomenon), to detail what’s exactly is going on with Earth, and particularly America, today. So central is this new persona that one of the tracks features another persona, Palaceer Lazaro. In other words, it features Butler himself.
And so Butler and Maraire take us on a tumble down the rabbit hole once again, swiftly reintroducing us to their cosmic world alongside some deep bass cuts from Thundercat on brooding opener ‘Since C.A.Y.A’. ‘…Gangster Star’ is sometimes still as bizarre as ‘Lese Majesty’, defying any expectations. ‘That’s How City Life Goes’ is pretty much two tracks in one, transforming itself from being light and shimmering to dark and deeply percussive in a heartbeat, whereas ‘The Neurochem Mixalogue’ straddles the line between smooth and mind-bending with its warped vocals and creeping, kind of intense synths. Lead single ‘Shine A Light’ is almost the epitome of their tumbling, experimental take on the genre, as Butler only constructs one complete verse to sit alongside Thadillac’s auto-tuned phrases and the sample of Dee Dee Sharp’s ‘I Really Love You’.
While some of the oddities remain though, they’ve been reined in somewhat, leading to a tighter, less bombastic album than its predecessor. The tracks pulsate with deep trap and hip hop beats, becoming more jazz-inflected on tracks such as ‘Dèesse Du Song.’ This makes it easier to concentrate on some of the lyrics that they weave. On tracks such as ‘Parallax’ Lazaro can be heard directly addressing contemporary issues, becoming a somewhat exaggerated personification of the social landscape (“send em all back/ Alternative facts”). ‘When Cats Claw’ is essentially a diss track using hyperbolic language (“every time I shoot I score”), but steps back to repeat the line “that ain’t cool”, almost questioning the way in which rappers sometimes throw shade at one another.
Considering that on the whole ‘Gangster Star’ isn’t a complete bombardment of the senses though, it’s frustrating how hard it is to sometimes hear what exactly Shabazz Palaces are talking about. Lines are often bathed in reverb, effects or persistent looping. Despite their engaging cosmic vibe, ‘The Neurochem Mixalogue’ and ‘That’s How City Life Goes’ are particular offenders. It’s hard work straining the ear to pick up on the poeticism that might be swimming underneath the surface.
The idea behind Quazarz is indeed fascinating, and could have been a unique way of talking about the modern social and political climate. Unfortunately, sometimes it feels like the quest for a particular vibe has sometimes been prioritised over the underlying message.