During the 1990s, Ishmael Butler, then known by the alias Butterfly, was a key member of the jazz rap trio Digable Planets. Alongside Doodlebug and Ladybug Mecca, their time in the spotlight may have been brief, but they made a lasting impact during the final days of hip hop’s golden age. Releasing two albums 18 months apart, both are considered jazz rap classics. The first, 1993’s “Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space),” delivered hits like “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” which earned them a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Their follow-up, 1994’s “Blowout Comb,” took a slightly darker turn but still perfectly captured the essence of the jazz rap sound.

After their initial success, Digable Planets ceased releasing new music. Butler reappeared briefly to feature on Camp Lo’s 1997 album “Uptown Saturday Night.” After this, he vanished for a decade, re-emerging with contributions to Lifesavas’ “Gutterfly” and Jake One’s “White Van Music.” Little is known about Butler’s activities during his hiatus, but his return was worth the wait. Re-emerging as Palaceer Lazaro, he partnered with Zimbabwean multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Baba” Maraire, the son of mbira master Dumisani Maraire. They formed Shabazz Palaces, self-releasing two EPs in 2009: “Shabazz Palaces” and “Of Light.”

Both EPs hinted at the experimentation to come but also carried a West Coast vibe. These EPs were enough to catch the attention of Sub Pop, making Shabazz Palaces the first hip hop act signed to the legendary label, which had made its name putting out albums by grunge rock legends such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

On their new label, Shabazz Palaces delivered something genuinely fresh and exciting with their 2011 full-length debut, “Black Up.” It marked a significant progression from their EPs, with an experimental blend of African percussion, jazz, industrial, psychedelia, crunk, and glitch elements into a cohesive whole. There’s been nothing quite like “Black Up” before or after, and it deserves consideration among the greatest experimental hip hop albums of all time.

Unfortunately, this would also be their peak though. 2014’s “Lese Majesty” was a more progressive and detailed effort, with the excellent “Forerunner Foray” standing out on an album that too often finds itself drifting along. It just didn’t pull you in like “Black Up” did. The same can be said for their “Quazarz” double release in 2017, “Born on a Gangster Star” and “vs. the Jealous Machines,” on which their overall sound became more airy.

Following their double release, Maraire departed, leaving Butler to fly solo. Unfortunately, 2020’s “The Don of Diamond Dreams” and 2023’s “Illusions Ago,” a collaboration with his alter ego Lavarr the Starr, didn’t see much improvement in quality. Both releases were meandering and unmemorable. A creative reset was needed, and it came sooner than expected with “Robed in Rareness” arriving just seven months after his last release. The biggest change was Butler deciding to take more of a backseat, with his vocals drifting deeper into the mix, featuring an increase in guest appearances and more sonic experimentation. Given that Butler’s smooth, distinctive voice had been the focal point of Shabazz Palaces since their formation, this was a significant shift. He was still present, but not as prominent.

The album features numerous guest appearances, with Butler notably taking a lesser role, while “Exotic Birds of Prey” explores a more diverse sonic landscape. The direction of this new evolution remains ambiguous, leaving uncertainty about its trajectory. Perhaps Butler is still in the phase of warming up, and time will reveal how everything comes together? The overall sound is futuristic, blending sci-fi synths, wobbly beats, and funk with experimental noise and occasional echo effects. Like “Robed In Rareness,” the album maintains a West Coast vibe reminiscent of their early EPs, subtly infused with nods to psychedelia echoing Shabazz Palaces’ earlier works from the 2010s.

Described as a “foreboding foray into final-days funk,” a short story, akin to digital liner notes, was posted on their Bandcamp posing the question: “What will you do when the robots don’t recognize your face?” It’s a haunting question that taps into widely held fears of a technological future where our identities are lost, evoking a dystopian world where advanced artificial intelligence dictates our very existence. This chilling concept attempts to imbue the album with depth, transforming it from a mere collection of tracks into a commentary on societal trajectory. However, this intriguing premise doesn’t fully resonate in the music itself. The album lacks hooks, meandering much like its predecessors, and fails to deliver standout lyrics that delve deeper into its apparent theme.

The album opens with the trap-influenced track “Exotic BOP,” featuring Purple Tape Nate, a past collaborator with Shabazz Palaces. Butler contributes occasional backing vocals, but Purple Tape Nate leads with his processed monotone vocals over a crawling bass and artificial cymbals. On “Angela,” a regular collaborator over the years, Stas Thee Boss (formerly of THEESatisfaction), joins alongside Dust Moth singer Irene Barber. Together, they deliver verses celebrating Black power over spaced-out, freeform funk with an off-kilter beat, framed by news clip samples. Butler’s presence on this track is strictly musical.

Following is “Well Known Nobody,” functioning more as an interlude. Driven by a skipping beat and atonal electric guitar, OCnotes delivers a sarcastic monologue: “I’m not a cynic, go to the mall, I love the president most of all.” Butler then shifts to an ambient direction on “Synth Dirt,” adopting the persona of a radio show host discussing “eclectic music and genre-bending, weird sounds.” This track feels like another interlude, and the album risks drifting into obscurity at this point.

However, the album is saved somewhat with “Take Me To Your Leader,” with its Drexciya-style electronica featuring Lavarr the Starr’s spoken word vocals. Butler’s alter-ego enters just before the halfway mark, steering the track into dark territory, before closing with the same Drexciya-inspired bleeps, but enhanced by sinister synths, effectively bringing the album to its conclusion.

“Exotic Birds of Prey” feels like a distant departure from Shabazz Palaces’ innovative and vibrant debut, “Black Up.” It’s difficult to gauge its direction, and it often seems aimless and forgettable, despite some interesting experiments here and there. Overall though, it’s a continuation of their gradual decline since their stellar debut, resembling more a mixtape of half-formed ideas than a cohesive, fully realised project.

Shabazz Palaces :: Exotic Birds of Prey
5Overall Score