The post-N.W.A, pre-Nas nineties witnessed an epic battle between two polarizing styles of hip-hop: gangster rap and jazz rap. While Dre and Snoop were on some hardcore, forties and blunts shit over loops snagged from George Clinton joints, Q-Tip and Phife were onto some playful, progressive shit, over John Coltrane hooks. Each form had its strengths and weaknesses. Gangster rap painted a more gritty and vivid, albeit disturbingly misogynistic, portrait of urban landscapes. Jazz rap was clever and politically savvy, albeit preachy. What makes Shabazz Palaces’ “Of Light” so strong, is that it takes gangster rap’s grit and jazz rap’s political vigor, while mixing in more than a couple shots of Ish’s down and out introspection and hyper-experimental production, the end result being an intriguing and unique, if not slightly oppressive, album.
It is no surprise that Shabazz Palaces, who also released a self-titled EP this year, would produce such an interesting synthesis of early Nineties rap genres. Afterall, Shabazz Palaces is none other than Digable Planets’ frontman, Butterfly, though, he then became known as Ish and, for whatever reason, goes by Palaceer Lazaro when he is working as Shabazz Palaces (which, as far as I can tell, is also just him). Digable Planets was a clear product of the jazz rap era, drawing nearly all of their samples from Blue Note’s catalog. While their first (and arguably stronger) album, “Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space”), is a more space age version of Tribe and De La Soul, the Planets’ second LP, “Blowout Comb,” was a dissonantly produced black power polemic – abrasive but nonetheless intriguing.
“Of Light” is more in the vein of “Blowout Comb,” but where “Comb” continued to draw its samples almost exclusively from jazz, “Of Light” embraces a far more experimental style, sounding more like a stoned-out “Funcrusher Plus” than either Planets’ release. “Gunbeat Falls” features a distorted half-catchy, hyper-simple piano loop and heavy vinyl distortion over monotonous claps. There is clearly some jazz here, but it is so stripped down that the track does not pay homage to jazz, but rather distorts it, awkwardly yet adeptly breaking it into its component parts. “N. Splendored/Find Out” is similarly minimalist, with cryptic and ambient waves under a deliberately basic kick-snare beat. There is experimental jazz horn in the background, but Palaces makes no attempt to integrate it into the beat. Instead, the horn seems a feigned attempt to fill the empty space left by the sparse percussion and melody. The chorus supplements this minimalism with a chilling drone of a hook, at once drawing from and giving up on more familiar rap norms.
While none of this harkens gangster rap, Ish draws from gangster rap primarily in the way his lyrics mix hopelessness and grit with contemptible bravado. Clearly, Ish is not Dre rapping about bitches and blunts, but perhaps a synthesis of a more war torn Snoop Dogg and a more cynical Phife, struggling with both hedonism and political will, but ultimately giving up on both. On “100 Sph,” Ish raps, “Officer down, we vanish back into the night… succeeding but we struggling/I mean it but I love it” with such a confident yet miserable tone that the listener can’t tell if he is celebrating his lifestyle, despite the hardship, or reflecting on the ironic fact that his passions make happiness allude him. On “Chuch,” Ish again, half-lamenting, half-flexing, declares that “the Devil best to let the party run straight up” over a dirty, half melodic chant.
There is an intense sadness to this album. Even when Ish is celebrating, the beats serve as a black hole that suck in his inspiration and spit it back out as mangled hope. Indeed, “Of Light” is neither gangster rap nor jazz rap. It is the product of the war between those genres in which both sides gradually lost.