I’ve long been a fan of Digable Planets. Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and Blowout Comb rank among my favorite hip hop albums of all time. It’s always bothered me that they don’t get the recognition given to other artists from that era. I suppose this can in part be attributed to how all three members disappeared from the spotlight for a while, then struggled to find new projects that worked as well as Digable Planets. Butterfly released an album as Cherrywine in 2003, but it was better in theory than on record. Ladybug Mecca released a solo album in 2005 that was pretty interesting, but didn’t cohere. Doodlebug recently launched a project called Cee Knowledge and the Cosmic Funk All Stars, but had been relatively quiet before. All this time, I held out hope that at least one of the three could still make music that moved me on the level that those two releases did. I’m happy to say that in 2011, Ishmael ‘Butterfly’ Butler’s Shabazz Palaces released an album that is as good as anything he’s ever done.

Since their breakup, Butler moved from NYC back to his hometown of Seattle. After releasing a couple of EPs as Shabazz Palaces, Sub Pop finally signed a hip hop project to their label. Now rhyming under the name Palaceer Lazaro, Ishmael Butler has kept mum until recently about the new group, not even divulging the names of everyone involved, in order to allow listeners to draw their own conclusions. I will tell you the first thought I had when I listened to the opening track - this is good.

Produced by Knife Knights.plcr (another name with little available information or backstory), Black Up is full of a heavy dub/bass sound that you might expect from Ninja Tune. It’s got a very deliberate pace to it, but that’s not to say it’s lacking energy. If anything, it just builds tension as vocals, various instruments, and effects are layer on top of each other, blending into a distinct sound that I can’t directly compare to anybody. And that’s where Shabazz Palaces really succeeds. In a year with a lot of good releases stacking up in the middle, Black Up has immediately claimed a space that is all their own. For a record that seems relatively simple on the surface, I keep going back time and again, discovering something new with each listen. An enveloping bass sound and simple yet catchy riffs lay the foundation, while psychedelic/dub layers swirl between around to mix instrumental sounds that are unique in combination. Throw in a influence of modal jazz a la Coltrane and you’ve got a bit of an idea as to what the album sounds like.

Butler is the featured emcee on the album, but his is not the only voice. I can’t tell you much about the contributing vocalists, but I can tell you there are multiple other voices, male and female, singing and rapping, giving the album fullness and energy. However, it’s Butler’s voice and vision that makes Black Up singular. With song titles like “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum,” “A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer),” or “Endeavors for Never (The last time we spoke you said you were not here. I saw you though.),” you might expect that you’re in for some sort of existential poetry, and you wouldn’t be wrong. However, it’s Butler’s ability to move from abstract imagery and concepts to an concrete message and then back again while switching up flows from melodic and playful to sharp, short, distinct patterns that really demonstrates that Butler is an emcee at the top of his game.

It’s not often that an artist gets the freedom to find a new musical voice later in their career, but Ishmael Butler has accomplished just that with Shabazz Palaces. F. Scott Fitzgerald once declared that American lives have no second acts. That was in a different time, though. We live in an age where information and music and ideas flow freely across borders, and it’s easier than ever to make something on your own or to collaborate with others. In the case of Butler, this isn’t even his second act. It’s really his third, and depending on how things play out, it could be his grandest act yet. All I know is that Black Up is a fantastic album from an emcee that has created a new space to express himself.