Mainstream rap and R&B's artistic batting average and exalted level of crassness are probably no better or worse or more notable these days than most pop genres, but the top stratum of the form is certainly glossy. From Drake to Rick Ross to Rihanna and Chris Brown to Beyoncé and Jay-Z to Kanye West and Nicki Minaj, these artists come on like cartoon titans of some musical Mount Olympus.
But, just below this celebrity tier, the genre has been making room for interesting, artier exceptions. Last year, for instance, the top album finisher in the Village Voice's long-running "Pazz & Jop" national critics' poll was Channel Orange by R&B artist Frank Ocean. Coming in just behind, at number two in Pazz & Jop, was Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, from Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. Trailing not far behind, at number five, was Kaleidoscope Dream from R&B singer Miguel. Joined by my own favorite R&B album of 2012, Elle Varner's Perfectly Imperfect, these critical smashes were also all commercial successes.
These successes suggest even weirder possibilities further on the margins of styles that haven't always fostered strong "alternative" scenes. As a left-of-center black music style from an unlikely locale, the boho rap/R&B of Seattle acts such as Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction isn't quite as undeniable as Prince's Minneapolis Sound, but it's well worth exploring.
Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction were the first hip-hop and R&B acts signed to Sub Pop, the venerable alt-rock label of "Seattle sound" rock bands such as Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Nirvana.
Shabazz Palaces is the brainchild of Ishmael Butler. The group emerged in 2009 with dual EPs, then released its full-length debut, Black Up, on Sub Pop in 2011. The album's afrofuturist trappings and endless, odd song titles type it as something that exists far outside the current rap mainstream.
"One thing," Butler announces on "Recollections of the Wraith," "Clear some space out, so we can space out." And that means oppressive, rubbery, rattling soundscapes rooted in deep funk, free jazz, afropop, and techno rather than more conventional hip-hop beats.
Amid all this, Butler burrows into his own just-out-of-reach concerns but sometimes comes up for air with bits of lefty politics, family life commonplaces, or dismissive put-downs of mainstream genre rivals, like this staccato riff: "Corny niggas/They comin' for me/Yelling at me/Running at me/Mink coats/Pink throats/Weak quotes/Low hopes/Anti-dope/Filthy note/Play a part/Never sharp/Fame's their art/Game on stop."
The soul-centric female duo THEESatisfaction — real-world couple Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons — appear on Black Up but made their own Sub Pop debut last year with the excellent full-length awE NaturalE.
The duo gives off a retro-futurist vibe, the look and foundation of '70s post-funk R&B pushed forward with production styles similar to, if a bit less dense than, Shabazz Palaces. The band's Prince-like single "QueenS" is a suggestive statement of purpose, opening with an intonation ("Leave your face at the door/Turn off your swag and check your bag/From your limbs to your Tim's/Get down/But whatever you do ...") then slipping into a sung-refrain request ("Don't funk with my groove").
More accessible if somewhat less impressive than Black Up, awE NaturalE provides a platform for a couple of relatable, compellingly intertwined personalities.
Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction
Rumba Room, Wednesday, May 1st, 8 p.m.
$10 in advance, $15 at the door