Written By: Andrew Sedo
Shabazz Palaces, the covalent team of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire, continue to perfect their unique African rhythm influenced experimental lyrical jazz, this time, on a dual release that is as genre bending and thought provoking as their previous stellar efforts. The Quazarz project is less of a concept album (and its adventurous sequel) than it is a reimagining of the African-American experience as explained to a traveler visiting a strange and dangerous new world. The series opens with our protagonist Quazarz (Butler) explaining his lifestyle on “The Gangster Star” where the locals are “post-language” and “only speak with guns.” Quazarz reveals he is from the “United States of Amurderca” which is a not-so-subtle nod to the realities facing the citizens in the impoverished areas of the world’s wealthiest country. In creating an alternate sci-fi reality, Butler is safe to intellectually explore his experience without the repercussions of reinforcing or glorifying the truth of the necessities of his lifestyle.
Quazarz Vs. The Jealous Machines
As he goes on showing us his environment, he explores the circular nature of hip-hop culture on “Gorgeous Sleeper Cell” which he asks “God what came first? / The rapper or the trapper?” which gets to the crux of hip-hop’s latent identity crisis. Is this form of music inherently rooted in violent industries like drug dealing, prostitution, and gang culture or is it a coping mechanism for those who have no other outlets (both creative and economic)? Furthermore, can one who hasn’t had these experiences create authentic music within this universe that is almost exclusively viewed from the outside in? Quazarz as a persona hovers somewhere between hero, villain, and unbiased cultural reporter.
Throughout Vs.The Jealous Machines, subliminal lyrics and simplistic booming basslines backed by ethereally minimal synths outline a bleak planet that is equally alluring and invitingly exotic for the outsider. Following Quazarz’ path is a difficult task but ultimately not that important. Vs. The Jealous Machines isn’t a traditional narrative in the way each experience seeks to further enlighten the listener on individual merit. The value of Vs. The Jealous Machines is a feeling that envelops and explains life in “Amurderca” through improvisation and demolition of conventions that only members of the culture can correctly explain. Thus the goal of Quazarz journey isn’t to make you understand, but to make you feel, and think about how your environment infects your every action.
The most biting critique of modern hip-hop comes on “30 Clip Extension” where Butler implores you to consider why you enjoy the music of “your favorite rapper”, who is described, at best, as a machination of the industry and at worst, as “parodying our sufferance / all for a pittance / like a penance.” However, at its core “30 Clip Extension” is not reprimanding the artists themselves, but asking you to explore your thoughts, to come up with a reason to like what you regularly hear. This is Quazarz mission, to give you the facts of his experience at let you inform your own journey through his world. Quazarz the character is challenging you to think past surface level, to examine motivation above all, especially your own.
Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star
As the title suggests, Butler is also struggling with his perceived musical superiority in this space occupied by the more “authentic” and less “intellectual”. These themes continue in part two, Born on a Gangster Star. On “When Cats Claw” Butler goes to war with the culture of cool where he believes history will eventually vindicate his legacy. The refrain of “that aint cool, nah” leads to the crushing diss “Bitch I’m Crazy Horse and you’re Custer” closing with the affirmation “Cause I’m Cool”. Thusly, Quazarz believes his mission is simply fighting against the systems of shifting definitions of coolness. If the metaphor rings true, his temporary victory will eventually give way to the crushing weight of the system, but he is secure in the integrity of his mission to undermine the politics of musical imperialism and similarity.
The following track “Deesee Du Sang” proves just how cool Shabazz Palaces can be by providing a beautiful respite for us to sit and reflect on the essence of our journey so far. On “Parallax” Butler uses the cosmic measurement system as a metaphor for his ideal of difference. The brightness of stars is used as a reference to their distance from Earth, which provides clues to those who care about their relative location. Again, Quazarz is forcing the listener to question if shiny earthly possessions are really an appropriate measure of worth. “Have you ever wondered why we all have the same dream? / Like, who installed this and like, what does it all mean?” Quazarz asks on “Fine Ass Hairdresser”. This could be interpreted as a literal feature of the dystopian world of “Amurderca” or applied to contemporary materialistic society. Likewise we must question what Butler means by the choral refrain about his current situation as he says “I got my money, I got my money, I got my gunny, I’m straight.” Is he positing on the luck of his current situation or is condemning the contentedness of those who have made it off the “Gangster Star”? This is the greatest message of Quazarz journey. Uniqueness is it’s own reward.
Quazarz exhibits many of the same features as those who were born into similar situations. So how is his perspective more valuable than anyone else’s? The answer is because it’s different. In a culture as corrupt as that of Amurderca, there is no excuse for moving along with the current. And while swimming wholeheartedly and unabashedly against the tide will inevitably yield limited results, the process can inspire. Quazarz is not a hero for sharing his story, and neither are we for listening. In “Amurderca”, there are no relative heroes, but parallax only works if you measure using the same starting point. Shabazz Palaces’ brightness is objective and unrelated to your position (or so they believe). However, Quazarz allows them to change the reference point for how we consume and consider rap music, that is, if you’re willing indulge their otherworldly premise.