Shabazz Palaces - Lese Majesty
Release Date: July 28, 2014
Record Label: Sub Pop
When experimental hip-hop outfit Shabazz Palaces released their debut record in 2011, the landscape of hip-hop was undergoing a very tangible shift. Artists became increasingly harder to pin down, and more than ever before we saw rappers that were considered weird (by hip-hop's standards) breaking into the mainstream, with Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and other slight off kilter rappers making their way into the public consciousness. While acts like those may have helped to make weird the new normal, there was another side of weird rap brewing during that year. Shabazz Palaces released Black Up to critical acclaim because it was, even in a genre that was breeding more innovation than it had seen in a while, unlike anything else out there.
Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire, the duo that makes up Shabazz Palaces, proved to be a hot bed of innovation. The slinky, ever-evolving beats crafted by Maraire sat behind Butler's sharp and precise flows, which he delivered in unpredictable and often structureless verses. Black Up felt like something new. As should be no surprise to anyone who follows this group, the duo's follow up, Lese Majesty, is every bit as progressive and experimental, and perhaps even more so. From album opener "Dawn In Luxor," Shabazz Palaces attempt to hit you with psychedlic disorientation, where airy synths and heavily delayed drum machines are coated in reverb under a processed Butler, who's layered vocals add another dimension to the space. It's a perfect stage setter for the ensuing experience to come.
Lese Majesty comes in at 18 tracks, which are broken up into seven suites. If that sounds like a lot to take in, it is and it isn't. The second suite consists of tracks that are all under the two minute mark, and the entire thing clocks in at under 45 minutes. There are a number of quick interludes tossed in here as well, so the record really isn't as long as it may seem on first glance. Yet each song, even the shorter ones, contain their own little worlds to pick apart and explore, sometimes fully realized and sometimes more desolate than the one before. "They Come In Gold" starts out as a demented sounding track, but toward the end more soulful and colorful sounds find their ways through the cracks. "Harem Aria" lurches forward before essentially suspending itself in mid-air before making its way into "Neotic Noirmantics," where a sinister bass line gets the groove going as static pulses cut through the mix. And this doesn't even begin to cover what's going on throughout the first half.
As the record goes on, things get much more unorthodox, most notably on lead single "#CAKE," a song that could easily be taken as satire with its hashtag title and references to cake, a common metaphor for money in hip-hop. The beat is all over the place, jittering from one passage to the next, completely unable to stand still. Things get spacier on "Colluding Oligarchs" and "Suspicion of a Shape," and by the time you get to album closer "Sonic MythMap for the Trip Back" you begin to wonder if this record was even made on planet Earth. The complete disregard for conventional sound is what makes Shabazz Palaces so unique, and throughout the record they identify the path they should, in theory, be taking, and they completely avoid it. It makes Lese Majesty an exhilarating listen, one where you really don't have a clue what's coming up next.
Butler's lyrics are similarly as hard to pin down as ever, though as with "#CAKE" and a few other instances such as "...down 155th in the MCM Snorkel," he seems to be throwing some subliminal disses at other rappers. Elsewhere, he muses on topics ranging from race ("Dawn In Luxor"), religion ("Forerunner Foray"), and love ("Noetic Noirmantics"). A lot of what he says is hard to decipher, and his dense lyricism is packed with layers of references that are likely to be lost on the vast majority of listeners. Still, it's fun to go in and see what you can pick apart, and his voice is used more as a rhythmic tool than a delivery of the words, though both are equally important in this case.
Shabazz Palaces should be commended simply for the fact they followed up an audacious debut album with a release that's every bit as bold of a statement as its predecessor. Lese Majesty is an entirely different beast than Black Up, and the group manages to continue sticking out in the hip-hop world for their incomparable creativity. With Death Grips now laid to rest, it's hard to think of many other groups or artists in the genre that are existing not only in their very own lane, but a lane that probably isn't even a part of this solar system. Shabazz Palaces truly seem like they're from another world, and we should be thanking them for even visiting ours.