Shabazz Palaces had a tall order in front of them when approaching their sophomore album Lese Majesty. Riding in three years after the success of Black Up, the expectations were high. But like any true creative would attest to, the challenge is part of the inspiration. Instead of following the minimal blueprint of their debut Tendai “Baba” Maraire added several new designs to the scheme, constructing angles and layering samples that only a skilled lyricist like Ishmael Butler could negotiate.
On the surface it can be a little much especially when the lyrics smear into undecipherable sounds, but at its hearts it’s a well executed collaboration between two artists with similar visions. Butler is sharp and decisive as is Maraire – not a moment’s hesitation. There are countless shifts in style, and both add their say without overstepping their bounds. Just when you think it’s about to get uncomfortable the beat or some fresh line ropes you back in and settles everything down. It’s theory and practice unified by some rock solid production.
Lese Majesty is broken up into seven suites, 18 songs in total, which range in style from abstract sound collages and spaced out funk to straight up hip-hop slammers. It ends much like it begins, on a slow build with room for growth. An easy candidate for hip-hop album of the year.
The first suite opens with a lush sunrise over a majestic mountain, the organic and inorganic percussion magnifying the dense brush of full bodied synth. From that fertile earth comes a voice that is wise, durable and totally detached from the meaningless hullabaloo masquerading as rap music:
The analog drift oscillates the melody to and fro like a cosmic hammock, leaving Lighting Rod dust in your ear to gestate. The woolgathering continues and embraces a more modern sound, but instead of diluting the concepts like some rappers are prone to do Butler delivers with a charge as strong as an ox’s: [LISTEN]
The return of the renaissance is marked by spacious production and unexpected melodies. Abstractions are just part of the game adding a thick layer of mist to an already enigmatic presence. The feel is urgent and post-apocalyptic. Angry, but hopeful. All the things Yeezus was trying to be but wasn’t: [LISTEN]
Movin’ on to the second suite, so no time for drifting. The quicker pace blossoms into a strange roll call that of all people includes Samuel L. Jackson, Al Capone, Jerry Rice, and Donald Duck amongst others. It’s a fantasy island of characters meant to amuse as much as it’s meant to intrigue:
A straight line can be drawn from Sun Ra’s third eye to the Palaces, the borders of hip-hop blurring into even more off-center manifestations. Lyrically the concepts are broader, this time swaddling itself in paradox and double meaning. From a literal standpoint it’s a shunning of the teacher role:
Suite two is submerged in cosmic rays and this one is no different with a bassline that’s so thick you can slice it in two. It’s more innocent in nature, a declaration of love that is colorless, genderless and totally heartfelt and universal. The message goes beyond rap and into the crux of human nature:
Wherever it was that Funkadelic frequented Shabazz Palaces has been there too, numerous times and with gold member status. It’s consecrated in intergalactic funk, but is delivered with a slick backed human punch. Part blaxploitation, part rap, but all totally fresh:
A mind bending jazz number inspired by the likes of Coltrane and Mingus. It sounds like a story of creationism but is hard to identify as its lyrics roots have ties to history, mythology and religion:
The crafting of textured layers and mismatched harmonies click well with Butler’s boundary breaking ambitions. He incorporates several different narratives into one but all with same underlying theme – the truth. His analysis of rap’s image is universal and applies to almost every facet of the culture:
Suite three ends on an esoteric note with graphic and intimate scenes of dense urban sprawl to take you away. The beat is steeped in sitar and reverberates off the wall mightily, grounding Butler’s voice just enough to where he can look you in the eye while enlightening you to the highs and lows of neighborhood ethics:
Weird for the sake of being weird, but not to the extent that it leaves you annoyed. The motif is simple, using the cake analogy as a way to examine the overindulgent rap game, and it hits with the type of subtle poignancy we’ve come to expect. The primal urges in the beat only enhance the flavor:
The most traditional sounding beat so far, which kicks off like it were inspired by some ’80s proto-rap. It’s a welcome departure because the language is so blurred and coded. Through the title though it’s clear that the main targets of this lambasting are the one-percenters and their seedy cohorts:
A melee of sound, and yet somehow Butler’s voice breaks through. He weaves in and out of the textures like smoke, bringing with him a sprinkle of steel dreams. It’s hard to make out exactly what’s he’s saying at times, but it’s intended that way. A sensory experience with compelling lines of poetry:
The past is so easy to forget that you’d swear someone was stealing it while you were asleep at night. It’s a terrifying sensation and a concept that is not off limits for Shabazz Palaces. They give that concept life by aligning relentless industrial beats with swift jabs and stabbing notations:
On some wild, bugged out rap ish without sounding like Madlib or J Dilla. The beat is raw and gritty, and should be quarantined for its lethal kill rate. So in that sense, there’s an absolute in that Butler’s going to bring it. And he does, with a verse so crass it renders the competition obsolete:
Broadcasting from a whole other dimension, yet rooted in the heart of the golden-era. The offbeat rhythms allow for a whole new rhyme style, and Butler is as light on his feet as he was when he was splittin’ mics with Digable Planets. He’s a master chef who knows how to keep his knife sharp:
A slow blossoming bed of sounds that eventually grow into a giant mountain – one with its own atmosphere. It’s home to them, and it slowly exits just as it had entered. Quiet and still like a perfect circle: