Reviews | Shabazz Palaces | Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star + Quazarz Vs. the Jealous Machines
As a big, big fan of Flying Lotus’ band of genre-defying Brainfeeder pals, I’ve always felt Shabazz Palaces might be the most underhyped, with their Daft Punk-esque costumes and slower, intricately mixed and always forward-thinking beats, often getting swallowed up in the hype over Flylo, Kamasi Washington or Thundercat. This double release - what should have been their epic double feature - doesn’t exactly help me prove my point.
When I first told one of my friends SP were coming out with a twin, highly conceptual pair of records, he simply groaned. Both of us would pick Black Up as their best work - delightfully experimental, motivated and clocking in at just 36 minutes. He argued that there’s no way they could make the same kind of impact with two albums that would be 23 songs in total, and though I fought him at the time I’m afraid he’s right. On 'Moon Whip Quäz', frontman Palaceer Lazaro (Ishmael Butler) repeats "I'm Quazarz, born on a gangster star" and transitions, with his musical partner Tendai 'Baba' Maraire, into an underwater, extra fuzzy, and out-of-this-world rendition of the previously thudding groove. It’s the high-point of a two album release that seems to have so much potential, but don’t quite make it there.
The albums revolve around Butler taking on the alien persona Quazarz, and analysing the political landscape of the US from an outsider perspective. Thematically, it’s a delightfully tongue-in-cheek take on the American state-of-the-nation music that seems to be popping up in about every genre right now (albeit for good reason). However, the impact is lost - the alien theme just isn’t used creatively or extensively enough.
The first album, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star is the less experimental of the two, flavoured with 90s-style looped tracks and the consistently groovy drum bits that Tendai Maraire can always be counted on for. It’s opening track ‘Since C.A.Y.A.’ features a jazzy bassline, heavy, techno-sounding vocals, and mechanistic whizzing sounds - a hopeful introduction that grooves hard. Both albums are a major high point for Maraire’s production, which is stimulating, unpredictable and still relatively accessible. But lyrically, Butler’s performance does not keep up. There are few memorable verses other than the catchy, possible future live-show chant on ‘Fine Ass Hairdresser’ (“I got my money, I got my honey, I got my gunny, everything’s straight!”), and maybe on autotuned song ‘Shine a Light’.
The second of the double releases is has mixed tempos, shifting tonalities, and a poetic, spoken-word intro from Butler on the “soft cyber caress” which lays out the futuristically shaded America he moulds all the album's verses around. “We talk with guns… kill love, kill money,” he says, introducing his closer analysis of the state of affairs ambitiously and broadly, and preparing us for an intellectual American culture slam. But again, the frame set up in the opening track is not properly filled, and this time there aren't as many catchy jams to help us ignore its lyrical deficiencies. By the second track Butler takes a few always-entertaining slams at other rappers, without being quite entertaining enough for it to work - an irony that leaves me feeling like it’s possible I just don't understand. I skip through to a decently fun track ‘Julian’s Dream’ or, thankfully, wonderfully DJ-ready thumping track ’30 Clip Extension’. This, like ‘Fine Ass Hairdresser’ stands apart from the rest of the album - quirky, fun, packed with a serious point.