Shabazz Palaces offshoot less avant-garde than it thinks

By John Lavanga / A&E Editor

I’ll admit, I’ve always been skeptical of the Pitchfork media darlings. Give a band that vaunted “Best New Music” label and I’m certain to play contrarian to the Internet’s most respected team of tastemaking contrarians. Perhaps it’s the reactionary in me — the plain and simple fact that I’m not keen on being told what to think of music, no matter who’s telling me. Pitchfork’s verbose pseudo-intellectualism certainly doesn’t help matters.

Avant-rap outfit Shabazz Palaces was no exception. At first I blanched at the group’s warbling, off-kilter production and downright weird barrage of admittedly captivating lines. Still, after a few listens, the brilliance of their 2009 self-titled debut became difficult to deny. The draw of the record was, first and foremost, its production.

Weird? Certainly. But weird like a viscerally stirring visualization at a VIA show. Weird like cubism when it first rocked the art scene. In other words, good weird. The intelligence and thoughtfulness of the work simply couldn’t be denied, nor was it displeasing.

“RiZe vadZimu riZe,” the debut release from Shabazz Palaces member Tendai Maraire’s side project Chimurenga Renaissance is very much a continuation of the group‘s avant-rap tradition. But a funny thing has happened to mainstream hip-hop, and all of a sudden, what felt like it was pushing boundaries just feels like standard fare.

Much has changed since 2009  — a statement that, when typed out, makes me feel sad and old. The sort of production that might have been pushed to the margins has now found a comfortable place at hip-hop (and, hence, pop music’s) forefront. Clams Casino teamed up with A$AP Rocky and brought the same old tropes some fresh life with mesmerizingly off-kilter percussion and melodies carried by saccharine, glittering tones. Danny Brown used his 15 minutes in the spotlight to prove that the maddening techno being blared in shelled-out industrial cities on both sides of the Atlantic are fit to drop bars on, and Kanye West channeled the polarizing architect Le Corbusier (whose work, by the way, was also the inspiration for Posvar Hall) on his way to Yeezus — a record that re-established the coexistence of poignant political commentary amid chuckle-worthy one-liners.

Perhaps this is why “riZe vadZimu riZe,” doesn’t feel so avant-garde. It’s a collection of very solid, interesting tracks, many of which are built over distinctly African instrumentation, and it is eager to make reference to resistance movements across that continent. Yet for these ploys at novelty, the record feels yawningly conventional.

In 2014, hip-hop production needs to keep a listener’s head spinning just to keep pace, and the record’s lyrical themes — many of which rail against the sad materialism of modern black culture — would have felt just as comfortable in an indie rap album from the ’90s as they do here.

In fact, it’s these lyrics that make the album’s avant-garde aspirations seem so desperate. Whether Maraire is lambasting, “Make a million dollars selling Gucci or hot beats,” as he does on “The B.A.D Is So Good” or giving us similarly generic complaints about the state of modern hip-hop materialism, the words don’t do much heavy lifting.

When your complaints about your genre — a topic you’ve presumably thought about — echo the words of a 17-year-old New Zealand girl, it’s pretty safe to say you’re not saying anything particularly new. That’s a shame, because from a production standpoint, this record is marvelous — a precarious balance of modern electronic beats with complex instrumentation that’s as shocking of a spectacle as juggling flaming chainsaws. Had Maraire put as much thought into complicating our discussion of hip-hop’s materialism, he might’ve made something really innovative — even avant-garde.