Ishmael Butler doesn’t like to repeat himself, and he’ll take as much time as needed between projects in order to make sure that he doesn’t. As Butterfly, he led the New York trio Digable Planets through a pair of very different, equally rewarding mid ’90s albums (1993′s Reachin’ and ’94′s Blowout Comb), then kept his head down for a decade. That group split in 1996, and Butler eventually made his way back to Seattle, where he grew up, and formed a solid funk-rock band called Cherrywine, whose sole, self-titled album came out in 2003. By decade’s end, Butler had a new group: Shabazz Palaces, which gigged around Seattle. Butler insisted that local press not reveal his true identity, but it leaked quickly regardless.
It’s not as if Butler had anything to be ashamed of. Black Up, Shabazz Palaces’ debut, is defiantly strange: murky, stoned, meditative, uncompromised, from the gamelan and eerie chant that drive “An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum” to the dank, minimalist percussion and disembodied soul wail that marks “Recollections of the wraith.” (All the titles are like that.) Yet for all its private-files feel, the music is instantly accessible: Butler’s far too hook-canny to settle for pure alienation, and nearly two decades on from Reachin’, his rhymes skip nimbly and easefully: “I find the diamonds underneath the subtlest inflections,” as he boasts on “Are You…Can You…Were You? (Felt).” Like its obvious sonic predecessors, Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Tricky’s Maxinquaye, Black Up feels like a personal statement as much as a sludgy funk fantasia. “Clear some space out so we can space out,” goes the chorus of “Recollections of the wraith.” Well put.