Ishmael Butler is still operating and thriving on the fringes of the rap game, even in his 50s. The former member of Grammy Award-winning trio Digable Planets made a reputation for himself in the ’90s with his adventurous brand of classic hip-hop. After returning to music in 2009 with Shabazz Palaces, his collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, Butler continues to expand his boundary-pushing style of hip-hop into the new decade.
On the new album, The Don of Diamond Dreams, Shabazz Palaces look outward toward the future, taking inspiration from funk and the new sounds of contemporary rap. Citing his son, Jazz Butler, also known as emo-rap pioneer Lil Tracy, as a primary influence on the project, it’s clear that Butler is perfectly willing to adapt to the new generation’s musical stylings. As a result, The Don of Diamond Dreams is a daring, experimental new turn for Shabazz Palaces, but it’s ultimately also an uneven, mixed bag.
The Don of Diamond Dreams is full of exciting, new combinations. Lead single “Fast Learner” sounds like a sci-fi reinterpretation of G-funk, adding eerie, electronic auto-tune to Purple Tape Nate’s guest vocals, creating a haunting, spaced-out atmosphere. Another track, “Chocolate Souffle” sounds both vintage and modern, with exciting funk grooves that blend well with Butler’s classic bars. “This is high art/ I tear the form apart,” Butler boldly exclaims, perfectly embodying Shabazz Palaces’ focus.
The experimental edge of The Don of Diamond Dreams, however, is also a double-edged sword. At times, it creates a unique listening experience. At other times, however, the resulting songs are a mess. The worst offender is “Wet,” an attempt at a playful trap song that fails to create any of the energy or interest that the style provides. Over a stumbling beat and production elements that pop in and out of focus like a sonic bubble bath, Butler does his best Lil Uzi Vert impression with little success. “I just like the water ’cause it’s wet/ I just call her water ’cause it’s wet,” he flexes in an attempt to capture swagger, instead coming across as corny. Although unconventional and sonically unique, the track is a total miss.
Filler tracks “Portal North: Panthera” and “Portal South: Micah” are largely forgettable and empty, contributing little to the album. “Thanking the Girls,” a well-intentioned tribute to the women in Butler’s life, comes across as flat and meandering, a retread of the duo’s various other odes to the divine feminine. These songs retract from the album’s experimental atmosphere, offering little intrigue or mystery.
Although the album often stumbles, there are bright spots. The alien “Ad Ventures” is the album’s clear standout track, with beaming, crystalline synthesizers and a thundering rhythm. Here, Butler’s classic braggadocio lines shine smoothly atop a threatening bass line full of swagger, instilling the track with a sense of cosmic cool. “I took the mountains/ I float down waterfalls and fountains/ Made a dream inside a CashApp,” he brags, his delivery effortless and nonchalant. “Ad Ventures” most successfully captures Shabazz Palaces at their most effective: experimental, atmospheric, otherworldly.
The final track, “Reg Walks By the Looking Glass,” is a fantastic psychedelic jam, ending the album on a high note. With a mesmerizing saxophone solo from guest Carlos Overall, the song finds Butler on a journey into another dimension. Here, Butler captures the album’s vision, intertwining the past and the present as his vocals are awash in an ethereal atmosphere.
The music of Shabazz Palaces has always been about enlightenment, delivered through a lens of cosmic, Afro-futurism. While The Don of Diamond Dreams proves that Butler and Maraire are willing to take inspiration from the current rap scene, the result boldly stands stuck somewhere between fearless experimentation and a scattered, mysterious mess — awkward, but fearless nonetheless.