In this first post of 2012 I proudly present my unabashedly belated yet wholeheartedly enthusiastic response to a slice of sound that has not only dominated my listening time for months but brightened my outlook for an important piece of the future of music.
Black Up is one of the best
hiphop albums I’ve heard all year (the year being 2011 but it doesn’t matter), possibly longer. I slept on this at first, honestly, because the name just seemed too hipster, too pitchfork, too much. I pictured a thousand chillwave and witch house bands lined up behind triangles and crosses, a sea of stoned faces, limpid whitewashed guitar and anonymous lazy beats. I pictured nothing interesting or worthy of my time, much less my money. I did not picture something this fucking good.
When most people think of a hiphop artist the vocals come first: style, cadence, and timbre to subject matter and storytelling. The sheer blunt force of the words themselves, inseparable from voice, embodies a delivery system of surface and substance. Crushing the underground binary of either transcending or subverting this natural order, Shabazz Palaces blow hair back with pointillistic dexterity and canny substance while folding the vocals into the dreamlike puzzle box instrumentation itself. Beatific slides like “It’s a feeling, it’s a feeling!” and “Clear some space out, so we can space out” are amplified by the very way they emerge through cloudbusting moments of clarity in the mix. The production is the most intricate and interesting I’ve heard in an impossible stretch of time. Huge and futuristic and swarming like Cannibal Ox (one of my all time favorites) but delicate and minimal in places, sometimes in the same song. Relentlessly kaleidoscopic on a track-to-track basis like Madvillain and equally playful. Taking each second as an opportunity for left turns, trap doors, and extraterrestrial launches like the best Flying Lotus material. I’m uncomfortable reducing this experience to references but they help paint a picture. Thrilling, gorgeous, head nodding and hypnotizing, worthy on its own as pure sound yet never subsuming the oft-poignant vocals, the meaning of Black Up is delivered fresh and phonetic, kinetic, poetic. I sink deeper, hearing more each time. Romantic, political, angry, meditative, militant, optimistic, futuristic, this blurs free-association and laser focus in the same moment, words and sounds in the same experience.
The duo of Ishmael Butler, of classic conscious/jazz-hop group Digable Planets (listen if you possess even a passing interest in A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, or Del La Soul; they’re probably better) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire (of whom I’ll be honest: I have no idea where he came from), is an alchemy I’ll forever thank Sub Pop (of all labels) for bringing to my ears.
My first favorite track.
Possibly the most direct distillation of the group’s ethos, with an outright nod to the original Digable Planets album in its ascendant coda.
The full album streaming free with visuals on youtube. Nice.
I should be so bold as to say that this is the equivalent of Disco Inferno (a longtime favorite of Optimistic Underground) for the hiphop galaxy. I don’t state this lightly. I also do not often insist so fully on a vinyl purchase but in this case I must spread the word on its inner beauty: the package does not resemble the semi-anonymous visual you’ve seen floating around the internet and the top of this post.