Take the essential elements of gangsta rap: the plainspoken narratives, throbbing bass lines and West Coast sheen. Pack it with today’s trap music, a little dancehall reggae and Afrika Bambaataa’s planet-rocking electro-funk.
Crumple it into a ball and fling it to Mars. That’s Shabazz Palaces.
Led by former Digable Planets rapper Ishmael Butler, the Seattle duo creates music light-years beyond the understated jazzy hip-hop that defined Butler’s former group. Here, Butler and his partner — multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire — gather the core sounds of rap, techno and R&B and mutilate them into bizarre renderings of African-influenced tunes. From there, Butler adds stilted flows that are sometimes filtered through voice modification programs.
On Thursday, during a mind-melding set at the Black Cat, the pair lumbered through its relatively brief discography — its first EP dropped in 2009 — and projected an otherworldly ambience. It’s very easy to zone out during a Shabazz Palaces gig, which is also detrimental because the music isn’t the most accessible. Of all the show’s superlatives, the venue’s sound system might earn the highest mark: It never gave out, despite the abundance of head-splitting notes and modulated disorder.
Released in late July, the group’s new album, “Lese Majesty,” is an eccentric suite of songs devoid of any particular style. It scans as hip-hop, but Butler’s rhymes are merely an addendum to the symphonic impulses he and Maraire share. This isn’t made for Top 40 radio formats, and they don’t care about conformity. The music is what it is: Shabazz Palaces discovers itself by peeling the creative onion to find the not-so pretty parts. It clutches the remains to create something all its own.
Occasionally though, it sounds like two beats are playing at the same time. It’s tough to comprehend just what is happening, and certain songs resemble bad dreams in sonic form. Yet it resonates, though you can’t fully explain why. It just feels right.
Still, the Black Cat gig wasn’t totally strange. Midway through the performance, Butler and Maraire slowly transitioned from the cosmic chaos of earlier songs to a makeshift reggae jam with spacey synthesizers amid a percussive loop. Of course, like much of its art, the duo stopped just short of crafting a straightforward tune. When the vibe began to endure, Butler and Maraire deconstructed the instrumental.
Other songs, namely “Les Majesty” standout “Motion Sickness,” passed immediate muster with the crowd for its stern tale of street survival. “The streets is undefeated, really now there ain’t no way out,” Butler spit in his customary nasal tone.
Near the end of the show, the pair dived into one of its more popular gems, 2011’s “Are You. . . Can You. . . Were You?” On the R&B-tinged song, from the group’s “Black Up” album, Butler ruminates about seemingly disconnected ideas that ultimately lead to the track’s original premise.
“It’s a feeling. . . it’s a feeling,” he repeats atop the scant composition.
How appropriate. There’s no rhyme or reason to Shabazz Palaces. Instead, it thrives on raw feelings.
Moore is a freelance writer.