Pitchfork Music Festival 2011, Sunday: Shabazz Palaces
Be wary of any hip-hop act that focuses on the beats more than the rhymes and the life. Additionally, avoid any album that asks the listener to focus more than the artist seemingly has.
Except in the case of Shabazz Palaces. Black Up, the Sub Pop debut of the Seattle hip-hop duo, rumbles and skitters and whirrs like ambient dubstep. The rhymes of Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler (formerly of Digable Planets) breathlessly flow away deep in the smoke. Today, he's wearing a Low t-shirt, which tells you a lot about where his mind is at. The techno-Bedouin concept is either not hip-hop or the most progressive hip-hop in ages. The motto of the record could best be summed by the lyric "Clear some space out, so we can space out." Yet it's mesmerizing after a few doses.
Live, Shabazz Palaces is clearly a collaborative duo, and has a lot less space to evaporate into. Butler and his shirtless, dreadlocked partner build the complex beats with a mixture of samplers and live percussion. Thumb piano, congas, share, cymbal punch up the hypnotic brew into something decidedly more organic and head-nodding. The thumb piano is particularly cool, tribal. Butler bursts out of the mix, too. His still-boyish-voiced raps are intelligible. There's an awkward moment when the two raise their fist in black solidarity. The 99% white crowd contemplates how to respond. The ever-shifting soundscapes save them the decision.
The only bummer is the amount of handiwork required to pull off the music. It forces the twosome to stand behind a table the entire set. A little syncopated dancing is an attempt at showmanship. Get a ringer to push the buttons, and this is the most intriguing rap act going.