Album Review: Exotic Birds of Prey // Shabazz Palaces

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Ishmael Butler is the mastermind behind the experimental hip-hop project Shabazz Palaces, renowned for testing boundaries and subverting genre norms. Exotic Birds of Prey provides a brief but impactful listening experience, deftly continuing its arresting discography. The seven song mini album packs a dizzying array of musical ideas, gritty textures and lyrical snippets to kaleidoscopic effect. Musical moments don’t linger past their welcome in Exotic Birds of Prey, at times even passing too quickly.

The album’s predecessor Robed in Rareness was released only five months ago, offering a tantalising duality between two equally ambitious projects. The former drew on shoegaze and moody ambience, whereas Exotic Birds of Prey harnesses a distinct Afrofuturist aesthetic. Despite this, Butler’s distinctive sound design and atmospheric production maintains convincing consistency between both projects.

‘Exotic BOP’, the first track from the new record, introduces lo-fi trap beats, submerged in a murky pool of otherworldly textures. Contrary to the auto-tuned style of more commercial productions, a dissonant synth passage cuts across the climactic chorus; Butler brashley rejects this conforming impulse.

In ‘Angela’ haunting vocals pepper a stuttering drum loop as respite from the murky instrumental, while a pulsing bass roots this track in a drunken, hypnotic groove.

DC rapper Japreme Magnetic takes centre stage on ‘Myths Of The Occult’. With lyrics on incarceration, immortal birth and supernatural weed smoking, his verse perfectly matches the psychedelic eclecticism of the album: “Rolled up a J then he took a dry toke/ focused on the tip came a flame from his brain/ as he took a pull black birds called his name”. Vocal snippets provide glimpses of paranoia; they peek around the trance-inducing synths of ‘Goat Me’. Drums, slightly out of time, effectively build an atmosphere of uncertainty, occasionally disturbed by ominous bass swells.

‘Well Known Nobody’ breaks through the trance, as distorted guitar rips and squeals over a frantic drum groove. This curious twist is short lived, mercifully giving way to an abstract spoken narrative which fittingly preludes the Afrofuturist wonder of ‘Take Me To Your Leader’. Merging a glittering sci-fi landscape with Butler’s disorientating style, the concluding track discusses plans for intergalactic communion. The song is credited alongside Butler’s alter ego Lavarr the Starr, through which he released a 2023 EP Illusions Ago. The result on ‘Take Me To Your Leader’ is a subversive, cosmic reimagining of his 70s influences, from funk to Kraftwerk.

Butler’s 2011 LP Black Up was lauded as one of the best albums of the decade by Variety and Pitchfork, among others. The brief 23 minutes of ‘Exotic Birds of Prey’ demonstrates a broad stretch of the same experimental work ethic. You may not notice the transition between songs, their fleeting nature allowing a constant unfolding of related yet innovative ideas, to be interpreted freely.

This project entices us to actively grapple with the music in order to make sense of the layered voices and cavernous production. For some listeners this may be a tricky, even frustrating task. Whether it is your first foray into this strange musical plane or one of many, the one thing you won’t feel is boredom.

Words by Ben Browning


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