On Double Take, KEXP's dynamic duo of Martin Douglas and Dusty Henry explore the great double-albums in history by each focusing on one part's musical, lyrical, and historic themes. First up are the parallel albums released by Shabazz Palaces on the same day in 2017: Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines.
The story of Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star starts out very innocently. Quazarz, an interplanetary traveller from some far away elsewhere, finds himself on a journey to explore the art and culture of the planet we call Earth. Though the narrative does find the titular character finding much, much more than they bargained for on its parallel, Quazarz vs. the Jealous Machines (more on that in a second), the first full-length of this pair of Shabazz Palaces albums conceptually augments the exploratory mission statement of the student known as Quazarz.
Long instrumental sections carry much of Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, and the songs featuring lyrics are seldomly iterated from the perspective of its protagonist; the album flows as though we’re studying what Quazarz is studying. Shabazz Palaces have never been confined to the boundaries of hip-hop music, but here they craft entire songs outside of the form. The breezy, laconic intro of “The Neurochem Mixalogue” embodies the air break of a radio show following the Quiet Storm format, while its succeeding movement bounces in uber-minimalist IDM.
“Déesse Du Sang” thuds like an irregular heartbeat pumping through the chest of an astronaut floating in zero gravity, and the astral, lowrider funk of “Eel Dreams” describes a romantic encounter with a slender-but-curvaceous being with purple eyes. The deft swing of “Parallax” is felt both musically and lyrically. “That’s How City Life Goes” starts with a trunk-rattling lurch (that is brilliantly reprised on “Federalist Papers”) and hits running speed into darkwave territory.
Recorded in a whirlwind two weeks with Erik Blood – the most official unofficial member of Shabazz Palaces – the intention was to just record a few songs, a process which escalated quickly to the point where the group had a full-length on their hands. Listening to the album, especially in hindsight, it’s easy to catch the impression of quick improvisation.
You know how the phrase, “This song sounds like it was written in ten minutes” often sounds like an insult? In the age of over-manicured, overproduced pop music, it’s easy to forget entire genres – most notably, jazz – were built upon using the techniques a musician had garnered over their years of playing (also known as “chops”) in order to freely explore a musical idea over the course of minutes or hours, not weeks and months.
Most of the musicians involved on the making of Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star – including but not limited to Ishmael Butler, Tendai Maraire, Blood, and Thundercat, whose preternatural bass-playing ability is the foundation of “Since C.A.Y.A.” – have been plying their craft for decades, affording them the instincts to create the soundscapes here at a rapid, nearly subconscious pace.
None of this is to say Shabazz Palaces has ventured too far outside the core of who they are as artists. The aforementioned “Since C.A.Y.A.” features one of the most dizzying and menacing verses of Butler’s career; shouting out Royce the Choice and African dudes on the block toting AK-47s, taunting simps and plastic-dipped rappers, and noting he’s been fly since his days at Central Area Youth Association. (All in and of themselves ephemera of his blackness; especially the latter, which highlights a time where white people rarely ventured out to the Central District because it was “too diverse” – scared-white-personspeak for “not white enough.”)
The merits of Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star are often minimized by those who had been floored by the prior output of Shabazz Palaces; the album is treated as if it’s inconsequential. Okay, sure, it may not have possessed the same unexpected jolt of creativity of Shabazz’s eponymous EP or Of Light; it may not have been monolithic opuses like Black Up or Lese Majesty, but when an artist is not reaching for transcendence is more often than not where they find what they’re really made of.
And remember, this is one half of a whole. This is only the beginning.
Phantom vibration syndrome. It’s a term that was created to describe the sensation of feeling your phone vibrate in your pocket, but then you check to find it wasn’t ringing at all. It’s an idea that couldn’t have existed even just a few decades ago. Syndrome makes it sound scary, but it’s just a part of life. An adaptive evolution to living in the 21st century. But what always strikes me about this phenomena is the urgency I feel whenever I get that sensation. Even as I write these words, I can imagine the feeling of my phone rattling against my leg. I have to answer this. This can’t wait. Whatever it is – I don’t know what it is – it demands my attention, now. There’s gut reaction to satisfy the stream of notifications. After all, you wouldn’t want your machines getting jealous of where you’re spending your time.
When talking about technology, or social media, it’s easy to follow down a path that’s already been (ironically) well tread in viral blog posts about “the problems with this generation” and the anti-social tendencies social media has birthed. Even when you can relate to the commentary, there’s a part that (at least for me) always wants to shout back,“Yeah, I get it. We’re fucked. Let me just post my brunch selfie in peace.” It’s become a topic that’s so present in our lives but completely played out in discussion. You either keep complaining about it, or you move on and deal with the repercussions as it manifests in swells of anxiety and envy. That Shabazz Palaces’ Quazarz vs The Jealous Machines skirts that narrative while still offering a scathing assessment of “the state of things” is a feat in itself. It just took leaving our galaxy for a bit.
While the Quazarz records are very much steeped in a fantastical, psychedelic realm of science fiction, it’s easy to find another historic lens to look through with parallels to Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The Palaceer plays the rule of Dante, the impure living soul seeing what the consequences and rewards that await for him – each dependant on the path he takes. Quazarz is the poet guiding him through, pulling back the veil and showing the torment facing those who wouldn’t turn against their wicked ways. The Palaceer is a long ways away from his home of Amurdercah – a land that's "post language" and where its citizens "talk with guns" – finding himself looking at the territories of Atlaantis and witnessing a society killing itself, completely embracing brutality. The world seems alien and weird from a distance. Its resemblance smartly mirrors the reality in which we currently exist.
There’s a propulsive drive on Jealous Machines that separates it from Gangster Star. Where there were long instrumental passages in the first disc, the conclusion to the Quazarz story is much more urgent. Butler’s inspired verse about flavors of fruit and seduction “Julian’s Dream (ode to a bad)” hits your ears with a hypnotic beat, twirling in your ears and making you lean in to his every word. “30 Clip Extension” and “Effeminence” as well give some of the most accessible moments across both albums. It’s as if the music is commanding you to listen closer, to pay attention. The themes of Jealous Machines are too complex and narrative-driven to boil down to a single thought. But so is the twisted, knotted up world we live in now. It can all fall apart if you’re not paying attention.
I find myself continually allured by the distraction of my own jealous machines, even while I write this very essay. I absent mindedly type in Twitter or Facebook into my address bar, not even realizing that I’ve somehow ended up scrolling through the same “content” again and again. Maybe it’s an internalized fear of missing a moment. I’m trying to think about something to write about Shabazz Palaces’ “Love in the Time of Kanye” while a Jimmy Kimmel interview with Kanye West on Donald Trump starts brewing discussion on Twitter. I snap back out of it, return to my document before losing focus again and sucked back into an endless scroll.
Quazarz better come soon.
In this edition of Rewind, Martin Douglas explores Shabazz Palaces' odyssey-like sophomore album, which surveys its environment with more street savvy than the group is often given credit for.
The exciting, enigmatic new project announce 1 Time Mirage, their debut full-length out September 14th from Sub Pop Records.
Every Shabazz Palaces record feels like a transmission from a far-off planet. In 2017, the Seattle hip-hop duo took this aesthetic a step further with two records -- Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines. The albums collectively chronicle the story of an alien sent t…