Decades in the industry and Ishmael Butler continues to find new inspiration
Not many artists can maintain a respectable career years after their debut, especially if that debut was in the early ’90s. For Ishmael Butler, the ability to maintain a place in music and the sound in which he helped pioneer is a piece of cake. After debuting in the music scene as Butterfly in the hip-hop trio, Digable Planets, their single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” gained critical and commercial success as well as charting on Billboard Hot 100. After disbanding in the mid-1990s, Butler continued making music. In 2009, him and his neighbor, Tendai Maraire formed Shabazz Palaces. Now five albums later, the duo has maintained their jazz infused Afrofuturist sound with The Don of Diamond Dreams and gives Butler a chance to show he’s still here for the long run.
Being a part of Digable Planets gave Butler credit for combining hip-hop, jazz and philosophical lyrics. By taking what he learned, he gave himself a particular sound that was distinct to the genre in which he was writing. In The Don of Diamond Dreams, people see this as well as more recent trends incorporated into the sound. The first song, “Ad Ventures,” is a heavy bass and drumline centered track. Feeling almost like a march, it gives listeners a preview almost as to what they should be expecting from this album. On “Wet,” he introduces some of the elements of the music out now. Over an airy, bubbly synth-focused beat is a flow sounding similar to 21 Savage’s “Bank Account” and adlibs that Migos would approve of. While it is out of Butler’s norm vocally, he incorporates jazz runs at the end to transition smoothly into “Chocolate Souflee.” Going back to this futuristic feel, Butler gives himself the opportunity to brag. In Apple Music’s Editor’s Notes for the album, he says, “I’m just going off, bragging and taking it back to what the rap thing was really about.” Can you really blame him for wanting listeners to know he’s still cool like that?
The seventh track, “Bad Bitch Walking,” features Stas THEE Boss. The production gives off the feeling of a Blaxploitation film and Pam Grier is about to walk across at any moment. The song itself focuses on the reclaiming of the term and how women have taken it and use it as a way to define themselves physically and in their confidence. It is a contrast to “Thanking the Girls.” Here Butler raps lines about love, appreciation and happiness regarding the women in his life. Whether it be his mother, his daughters (who the second verse is solely about) or the past women in his life. The amount of lessons they have taught him do not go unnoticed and this track allows them to always remember that.
The final song, “Reg Walks By The Looking Glass,” features Carlos Overall. Another sentimental piece, Butler writes about personal experiences he had with his father, Reginald. It is also his way of sending off his father, who passed away in July 2019, to the place he is going to next. By honoring this journey, there is a saxophone/bass solo as the sax was one of his father’s favorite instrument. At almost 30 seconds into the end of the song, the saxophone halts and this robotic voice is heard. Underlying are synths made to sound otherworldly that when people go back to the beginning of the album, is very close to how the first skit, “Portal North: Panthea” sounds.
As a whole, even with the contributions of the styles trending, The Don of Diamond Dreams is a very cohesive album. Often artists who debuted decades ago who try to bridge the gap between now and when they started are not too successful. Luckily for Butler, he is. The care of listening and soaking in what these new artists are doing rather than solely critiquing them is working in his favor. Shabazz Palaces helped boost Butler’s original style of fusing jazz with hip-hop and rap elements. Now with the new styles he has learned, should he continue, Butler is only going to go further, and The Don of Diamond Dreams is a step in the right direction.