ALBUM REVIEW: Shabazz Palaces Gets Funky with ‘The Don of Diamond Dreams’

The new record from Ishmael Butler’s experimental rap venture is a delightful mix of psychedelic and corporeal funk.

The animating principle of jazz-rap, which emerged in the post-Reagan ’80s and reached its zenith in the early ’90s, was elementally simple: in reprocessing black art of the past, it worked to fundamentally alter black art of the future. This self-sustained, symbiotic exchange reinvigorated both jazz and rap, breathing new life into old jazz music while expanding the horizons of new hip-hop music.

In the vanguard of true jazz-rap giants, few have continued to represent this sort of ethos better than Ishmael Butler.

Where his legendary work as part of Digable Planets pulled from jazz’s astral boundaries and rooted them into tight, enthralling hip-hop grooves, Butler’s remarkable second act as Shabazz Palaces (now a full-on solo project since the departure of Tendai “Baba” Maraire) has moved in the exact opposite direction.

Shabazz Palaces’ 2011 Sub Pop debut, Black Up, evoked the cosmic afrocentrism of Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra, warping hip-hop into something unrecognizable, as if it was levitating in the cold black void of outer space. Later works like 2014’s Lese Majesty and 2017’s Quazarz series seemed in perpetual drift, shaping Butler’s avant-garde ambitions into something more deeply indebted to the grooves of soul and funk music.

His new record, The Don of Diamond Dreams, is another marvelous contradiction. It is the most overt flirtation Shabazz Palaces has made with the sounds of conventional hip-hop, but it remains difficult to categorize it as a hip-hop album per se.

Instead, it feels more like a funk album, an intergalactic hybrid of vocoders, Afro-futurism and post-psychedelic haze. It’s clouded in a thick layer of smoke, with Butler’s reedy voice often becoming one with the landscape. With a focused guest list that keeps the atmosphere intact, the record is often brilliant.

After the opening transmission comes “Ad Ventures,” which anchors itself into a slow, marching groove, with militaristic snares and a grimy bass line that comes to the forefront of the mix. Butler has described the song as the aftermath of traveling around the world, and an “homage to the people I work with in the Black constellation.” Rightfully, Butler’s lyrics bounce back between Algiers, France and Zanzibar. His delivery adds another dimension of motion to the mix, and lines like “it’s dumb popping when the drums come knocking” sound delightful as they ricochet off each other.

As the album winds on, we see Butler’s more collaborative spirit come into play; a marked difference from the insularity of his earlier Shabazz Palaces work. On “Fast Learner,” a lysergic funk odyssey, the auto-tuned croon of Purple Tape Nate adds another sonic layer, pulling Butler’s tight grooves into the realm of modern hip-hop. With Stas THEE Boss’s feature on “Bad Bitch Walking,” Butler orchestrates a reclamation of the “bad-bitch” phrase, flipping between trap-influenced textures and a bass-line that evokes the glimmering, futuristic grooves of disco.

Elsewhere, Butler’s hyper-literate style is flipped on its head for the mindlessly repetitive “Money Yoga,” which apparently derived its concept after Butler noticed people on Instagram doing yoga. Noting the sharp contrast between the broadcasting of social media and the intent of yoga as a mindful act, he warps this metaphor into a mantra-like song on the acquisition of money, surrounding his repetitive lyrics in saxophone filigrees and dreamy synths. It’s a remarkably effective song, heavy-handed in concept but lightweight in execution.

This might make Butler sound like a purist, but, as “Chocolate Souffle” proves, he has a sense of humor. The bass is immediate, and it carries the melody as it evolves throughout the song, getting brassier here, bottoming out entirely there. It’s fantastically funky, with Butler ceaselessly jumping through raps, and pausing on a dime when he finds a line he likes. He latches onto phrases like “My phone’s really not that smart,” “I’m a movie, she wanna park,” and the delightfully meta “Catch mermaids without no hook.” Later, he fits another one in: “Cool phrases collect in the pool of my intellect.”

On “Chocolate Souffle” Butler is boundless, flying through bars like a bullet train with no station. It’s the most potent blend of funk and hip-hop here; an acid-washed jam that pulls from the delightfully freaky, unapologetically black sounds of George Clinton and launches it into the 22nd century. Even 30-plus years into his legendary career, long past the zenith of jazz-rap, Butler’s driving purpose remains the same.

Score:💎💎💎💎 / 5