Ishmael Butler once likened influence to a vortex. Time, he said, doesn’t move linearly like an arrow, but “goes around like a whirlpool, where things are picked up and moved around but they may appear in the same place that they appeared earlier or later.” He pointed to Lil B, who championed hip-hop fundamentals like freestyling and dancing around the same time Butler and Tendai Maraire formed Shabazz Palaces, as an example of this coiling chronology. But it applies to Butler as well. The futurism of Shabazz Palaces has always been interwoven with the past and present, their songs scintillating tapestries of old-school shit talk, proggy psychedelia, and melodic flossing. Robed in Rareness is draped in this multiplicity as Butler and a team of close collaborators swagger across eras of rap.
The seven-song record is the third Shabazz Palaces project without Maraire, who left the group sometime before 2020’s The Don of Diamond Dreams. The production, helmed entirely by Butler, is icier and more metallic without Maraire’s rhythmic touch; the arrangements don’t swell, contract, and glow as intensely as those on Lese Majesty or the Quazarz albums. But that muted palette fits the cool, nocturnal mood. Though there’s still plenty of Shabazz Palaces’ signature chaos percolating within the beats, from the distorted moans drifting through “Binoculars” to the spacey sound effects stardusted across “Scarface Mace,” the music largely brings to mind the calm of a club’s backroom. There’s a party happening a few feet away, but this particular crowd is happy to kick it in private.
Butler rolls deep, tapping features for all but one song. Geechi Suede of Camp Lo, Colorado Springs’ O Finess, and Butler’s mysterious signee Lavarr the Starr, with whom he co-released an album in April, are among the guests, their disparate styles reflecting the music’s eclectic mix of punchlines, flexes, and cosmology. Butler leads the pack, gamboling through his verses like a hurdler. “I’m in my smooth phase/The L’s, they L me like Cool J/How could I fugaze?/The gangsters they hear me and shoe gaze,” he raps on opener “Binoculars,” his voice compressed into a fizzy warble. “Of the jiggy OGs, I’m the president,” he says with pride on “Woke Up in a Dream,” a collaboration with his son Lil Tracy. Butler charmingly calls Tracy his “idol,” a nod to their familial bond, and to his multidirectional understanding of time.
He really is a rap time traveler. There’s no parasitism or trend-chasing desperation to the trap hi-hats and Auto-Tune vocals on “Cinnamon Bun,” on which his cadences strangely evoke Father and Chavo. The haunted beat of “Scarface Mace” brings to mind the cinematic loops of Roc Marciano and Alchemist, and could easily slot into a Griselda release. I doubt these are conscious reference points, though. Butler is a true lifer, the pursuit of new sounds as intrinsic to his style as sounding fly. The ease with which he shifts directions and shuffles through time keeps the album engrossing, even though the guest verses lag Butler in terms of skill. Robed in Rareness is ultimately a less significant Shabazz Palaces release, but there’s something fitting about a casually adventurous album by a vet dropping in the year of hip-hop’s 50th birthday. As the doomsayers look backward, Butler turns his gaze everywhere.