REVIEW: Shabazz Palaces – The Don of Diamond Dreams

How many 50 year olds out there are fans of emo rap? Isn’t emo rap tailor made for this generation’s 20-year olds who missed out on the nu metal and indie rock era?

Are many parents actually enjoying their children’s SoundCloud playlists of Juice WRLD, XXXTentacion and Lil Peep?

Frankly, I am not that surprised that Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces is one of them. Now in his 4th decade of pushing the envelope of what is possible within the confines of hip-hop music, Butler’s new output seems to have been heavily influenced by his son Jazz, a.k.a. Lil Tracy – who is in his own right a prominent emo rap artist.

Before you read on further, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Shabazz Palaces’ new album The Don of Diamond Dreams is a good album and a worthy addition to their back catalogue.

Seattle born and raised, Ishmael Butler rose to fame with Digable Planets in the 90s by fusing jazz and hip-hop together, greatly contributing to hip-hop’s ascent and earning himself a Grammy and a few bucks along the way.

 

After disbanding Digable Planets, Butler eventually formed Shabazz Palaces with percussionist Tendai Maraire (who does not contribute in TDoDD). Their debut Black Up (another great album that we forgot to include to the recent PB Best Debut tournament) remains one of my favourite hip-hop albums of the past decade.

It seems like this time around Butler decided to throw emo rap into his musical blender of funk, soul, jazz, electronic, abstract hip-hop and rock influences, but… with uneven results.

Take “Wet” with its fully blown Lil Uzi Vert aesthetic. Butler’s lyrics are panned left to right on each syllable, he references Lil B and Steph Curry’s wet shot (I have always been a fool for basketball references in music) but fails to deliver with a chorus of “I just like water ‘cause it’s wet”. Yet as I’m about to skip to the next song with disappointment, a brilliant guitar solo sweeps everything aside and wins me over.

“Bad Bitch Watching” brings the best and worst out of this new direction. At over 6 minutes long the song is given space to grow and it builds up beautifully, with a great smoky beat and awesome Herbie Hancock inspired bass and synths. But the 2nd half of the song is a bit of a let-down. The feature of Stas THEE Boss hinders the progression of the song and stops it in its tracks.

“Fast Learner” features Purple Tate Nate and is clearly the single of the record. Over a super-catchy guitar riff and sparse beat, Purple Tate Nate acknowledges hip-hop’s place in today’s music and society: “It’s a new age and it all happens when ni**as rap” (true-dat).

“Chocolate Souffle” returns to more traditional Shabazz Palaces themes from previous albums, with spacey beats and fat synths that bring to mind George Clinton, Funkadelic and Aquemini-era Outkast. It could go on for another 5 minutes and I would still enjoy all the ways the song evolves and mutates over the same motif.

TDoDD wraps up with the best song of the whole album. “Reg Walks By the Looking Glass” achieves what I’m certain Butler set out to accomplish here. It perfectly blends War’s 1970s soul explorations (sax solo and all) with emo-rap’s sparse sound. In lesser hands this would have been a mess. With Ishmael Butler we have come to expect more and in this instance he delivers. If “…Looking Glass” is anything to go by, I cannot wait to see what the decade ahead holds for this uncompromising, restless artist.

 

Words by Constantine Courtis.

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