Can Afro-Futurism Hang With Trap?
It’s easy to throw the “reviewer” cap on and declare oneself so in touch with the artiste’s of the world. But then, a Rubik’s cube like this gets lobbed your way, and it becomes time to really pony up. Some smart, strange individuals out there make music, and you’re just along for the ride.
At first listen, this double album by Shabazz Palaces comes off like a mixtape just found on any trip to Venice Beach; ramblings about free market and the struggle to find love in modern times playing along to eccentric void-y beats scrambles all attempts to have confidence in musical understanding. Is the music good? Is it so beyond understanding that it can only be analyzed post-forest-vision-quest? Or is it just crap?
But then, that familiar flow catches the ears. Yes sir, that’s Butterfly of Digable Planets. Okay, he’s not known as Butterfly anymore; it’s Ishmael Butler aka Palaceer Lazaro now. But still, reminders of “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That)” and “La Femme Fetal” flood in. This is a man who knows what cool is, and where it comes from. If there’s anyone to trust to understand such an overstimulating modern world, it’s the guy who knows how to take insane cultural awareness and deliver it with a calm smile. That calm smile, though, sounds like it has been replaced by a cynicism on the opening song. Why? Any doubt and confusion that builds up on the opening to Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, “Welcome To Quazarz,” though, makes total sense on the second song, “Gorgeous Sleeper Cell.” But can this sweet spot be ridden over the course of two full-length albums?
The words “phone” and “drone” are so over used at this point in today’s lyrics that any mention of them acts as a proverbial strike one against an album. But then, “Gorgeous Sleeper Cell” settles in, and it makes these words work so well. It uses them as symptoms of a proposed hyper-technological future that gives off images of Akira and Ghost in the Shell, added to by the dark, laser-guided beat. Ishmael Butler’s simple rhythmic flow merges so well with the repetitive synth that he transforms into a melancholy cyborg that wants more out of this dystopia. Now that’s storytelling.
With that concept of riding the sweet spot in mind, every forthcoming song is judged almost on an individual basis. “Self-Made Follownaire” is a pretty lame phrase, and so is “styleless stylist,” but the wub-wubb’ing over breathy synth excuses it by giving the song a unique alien aesthetic to latch onto. But then he says “selfie stick samurais” and paranoia starts to set in. Is the listener’s woke-ness being taken advantage of? But then more dope synth enters and the struggle begins again. Dissonance sells records. Too much, though, and frustration sets in. The music is creative, but does that excuse lyrics that go from genius, to way too on-the-nose, to completely too out there? Even more conflict regarding trying to fit a flubber-shaped album into a square hole is introduced in “Atlaantis” and afterwards.
Shabazz Palaces is really capable of some romantic, fantastic imagery worthy of entry in a Dune novel. Is this what being in a relationship with an artist is like? A roller coaster of brilliance flanked by disjointed confusion and Jaden Smith channelings? Dear God, let this not be true. For every “SS Quintessence” anti-monolith worshipping, afro-futurist, but still fun bouncy detuned space synth ride, there are plain dumbfounding ramblings over beats more joyless than the trap artists Shabazz Palaces criticizes. But, hey, remember: roller coasters are still endlessly entertaining.
Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star is actually more accessible, albeit less inventive. “Shine A Light” creates a retro take off of high class soundscapes in the vein of Bond themes. That’s a sentence that sounds familiar! The head is finally bobbing above water and remembering that the Quazarz don’t actually exist, and that references can come from Earth! It serves as a palate cleanser that makes the ceaseless droning of “Déesse Du Sang” worth it just for that contemplative icy pad melody that weaves in and out. It is at “Parallax” that Gangster Star goes post-lyrics and the roller coaster of whether or not the lyrics actually mean anything is happily set aside for listening to the journey of the production. Hey, that drum beat is cool to latch onto! The next song is called “Fine Ass Hairdresser”? Sure, why not! That’s an awesome time signature that they’re mumbling over! The dark “ooh-ahhs” sound cartoonishly villainous enough on “The Neurochem Mixalogue” to get to the relaxing pentatonic qualities on “That’s How City Life Goes,” but then “Moon Whip Qüaz” insists that melody will not be held sacred forever in this world. It makes “Federalist Papers” afterwards actually sound all the more beautiful as a result. Stars shoot in the distance, and the calm sets in again. As those stars fade into silence, the mind resets. It’s okay to not like everything, but everything definitely exists, especially on this album.
Engaging 100% with creativity isn’t always going to cause success. Sometimes, the result is illogical and comes off pretentious. The Quazars saga is a difficult one. It makes the listener feel like they’re a child that has walked up to an adult’s conversation on the vs. The Jealous Machines that is not only nor for you, but you’re not sure who it’s for. The thing about afro-futurism from bands like Parliament is that it’s undeniably fun. The future is going to be fun, damnit, no matter what. But, in today’s times… is the future going to be fun? This is not a dig at the feelings of dread on some of these songs. It feels more like that’s what Palaceer Lazaro is speaking to at certain points, and representing on this double album. Trap is not predicated on having fun, at least that’s what it feels like. Modern music has a lot of anxiety woven into its DNA, and it’s been a long time since “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” came out. Is it a rocking fun time to watch Black Mirror? No, but it’s important to remember that themes are not born out of a vacuum. The Quazars couplet, although challenging to digest fully, is certainly one worth remembering.