Shabazz Palaces - Lese Majesty

Seattle rap griots strip-mine the Milky Way for aural gold.

Additional Info


ALBUM: Lese Majesty

ARTIST: Shabazz Palaces



Slowly, five years on, Shabazz Palaces have been building up a ziggurathic mythos in the dark and damp of the Pacific Northwest, like some musical ark that will carry the chosen to distant stars, or so Ishmael Butler, aka Palaceer lazarro, fka Butterfly, one half of this straight-up and consciously strange duo, the other being producer and mbira wizard Tendai Maraire, would lead us to believe. Since the release of 2011's brilliant Black Up, a cult of sorts, rare in hip hop, has formed around the unlikely pair. That they hail from Seattle, known mostly for its grunge and "indie" offerings, only adds to the general oddity, even if that far corner of the country does indeed breed and thrive on the seriously weird. But distance has proven to be a boon for Butler and Maraire. The overall absence of a built-in hip hop community in the region, so far from either NYC and LA, has allowed for a freedom to basically create one that expands beyond hip hop (see The Black Constellation), and Butler's well-known rap pedigree as one-third of Digable Planets (they had a gold-selling record back in '92) certainly gives him perspective, if not elder-statesman status.

The group's latest cosmic communiqué, then, comes as a shot across the bow of the big-pimpin' party-barge, a call to arms for those who didn't know or simply forgot that hip hop too is art, a form of expression pure as any. The key to the record, or one of the keys, for there are many doors therein, comes in the final seconds of the record's first track, "Dawn in Luxor". The shimmering silk wash a major 7th chord slowly fades as one of Maraire's samples comes into play, a man's voice, ambiguously African, says, "You know how to get all the parts out and put them back together? To clean the gun? Put back together, with a bullet? Start shooting, you know?" As Butler stated in a recent interview with NPR, "...make no mistake, this is an attack." On this battle-trajectory, Lese Majesty takes hip hop and slowly "deconstructs," breaks it down, and puts it back together again for pure force of impact, a sort of verbal violence aimed at all the "pick-pockets, dope-peddlers, murderers and thieves" crowding out the hip hop scene. (See the genius sample beginning at the 0:26 mark on "Forerunner Foray," as a car-horn echoes the self-same droning chord carrying "Dawn in Luxor" and a toast by none other than Lightnin' Rod is caught by a bass-drop for the win.) The military imagery returns later at the end of "Suite Two: Touch & Agree," on the track "The Ballad of Lt. Maj. Winnings" and continues into "Suite Three: Palace War Council Meeting," which leads one to wonder, why the faux-prog track listing? Who do these guys think they are?

The danger of records like Lese Majesty is in creating new categories, new frameworks by which one may understand them. With Black Up, Butler and Maraire took everything notional and true of hip hop, then stretched it, cut it up and cobbled it back together again into their very own aural coat-of-many-colors. The style was new but recognizable, traceable to a tradition begun some time in early 70's New York City. On this latest outing, however, the pair have gone beyond the pale, though in the best way possible. In structure, texture, timbre and narrative the record is almost wholly alien. Most of the tracks here dispense completely with the verse-chorus dynamic, regular 4/4 time, and on at least a couple of tracks, a tonal center altogether.

All garments have been removed, and the creature underneath is something so new it may or may not currently fit into the prevailing musical milieu. So, the problem: This is unprecedented music, sure. But it is actually good? There is temptation is to throw up one's hands in frustration and simply call it genius, which it may be. A certain amount of time will have to pass before this record can truly be processed and, yes it will happen, quantitatively evaluated. Until then, here is the test: Does it move you? Do you want to return and listen again and again? The answer is without a doubt, Yes.

Though the record gets a little big for its breeches at 18 tracks (in all honesty it feels like it ends at track 11, then jettisons into the ether to stay there), the ore at the center of the experience is simply shimmering. Indeed, gold is a frequently recurring image here—not in the common chain-swinging, Jesus-piece sense, but as the end of alchemy, a mythical and timeless mark of the divine. Palaceer lazarro fully intends transform our long-held notions of what is good and right into something beyond time, which is to say beyond history. Herein lies what may be the most fascinating, that is ironic, aspect of a group that always seems so now, so ahead-of-the-game. They lead us forward by leading us back. Just looking at the track titles one is struck by Butler's sweeping sense of history: "Ishmael" (alluding not only to Butler himself but to the protagonist of Melville's famous novel, which is referenced multiple times over the course of Lese Majesty), "Divine Form," "#CAKE," "Colluding Oligarchs, " "MindGlitch Keytar TM Theme," "New Black Wave," and "Sonic MythMap for the Trip Back."

The overriding effect of such a temporal stretch is that slowly we're being lifted out, or carried out, of time to whatever lies beyond, to the eternal and infinite. As Butler states in the same NPR interview mentioned previously, "And it's [referring to a certain 'me-mania' in today's culture] seeped into the the marketing of music, people really being more concerned about themselves—especially in the rap game, bragging about material things—rather than doing what I think music is really here to do: to unite people and to kind of extract the self from these ceremonial music experiences..." To extract the self. It seems as if Shabazz Palaces, however haphazardly, have once again succeeded in doing just that.

"Your aesthetic's stuck in Europe."

1. Dawn in Luxor
The closest thing to an aubade I've ever heard. The cathedral ambient drone mimics the beauty of a desert sunrise perfectly and underscores Butler lyrical agility nicely as he speaks, "The lesser rapper must content with lying to himself." This is a statement of purpose and a challenge, legitimized across the subsequent 17 track sprawl. Continuing the group's Middle Eastern thematic, which juxtaposes oddly with that of Africa, the track opens and rides out the swell of a major 7 synth figure finally breaking in depth-charge bass, a sort of arpeggiated synth-bazouki and even the sound of sonar, as if we begin this sonic journey beneath the waves only to emerge into a milky moonlight expanse, rising higher.9.5
2. Forerunner Foray
The forerunner here could be the man in the sample spitting the dozens, the sample itself, an acknowledgment of, and thus a reliance upon, the tradition: classic braggadocio mingled with New Age mysticism. What is Butler up to? Equally, this track establishes the Us. v. Them mentality only to hold it up and explode it later in the record. Maraire's sense of timing is brilliantly on point here, the introductory sample settling beautifully into a future-jazz bounce made all the more seductive by the warm vocals of THEESatisfaction's Catherine Harris-White.9.0
3. They Come in Gold
Another brilliant slap-dash pastiche courtesy of Maraire, the track jars upon entrance with a glitchy sample reminiscent of Black Up's "An Echo of the Hosts That Profess Infinitum" only to drop and roll into a soul-jazzy lounge groove so sweet it aches. As for Butler, he's running a clinic on cool here, delivering biting lines that swagger and swerve like lyrical rope-a-dope. "Sepulcher: a stage alive by ghosts. Floating off of bags of the blood-encrusted dough. Farcical, quite simply it is him. It's blackaphilic and petalistic catastrophic hymns." Huh? If at times his lines are completely elliptical, his obvious love of sound, manifest in delivery, more than makes up for the potential impasse in meaning.8.5
4. Solemn Swears
At first "glance" this is one of the more absurd tracks on the record, but this is simply a testament to the intricacy of the interplay between what Butler says, what he means, and what Maraire weaves to cradle it all. A solemn descending arpeggio belies the seeming levity of Butler's lines. "I'm comin' up like Donald Duck"? Maybe he meant Scrooge McDuck?8.0
5. Harem Aria
An answer of sorts to the previous track, "Solemn Swears," Maraire's whip-crack boom-bap carries the track, as Butler's delivery comes across as simply insoucient. The beat breaks down beautifully around 1:32.
6. Noetic Noiromantics
A sincere if convoluted love song and a glimpse into Butler's rarely seen softer side as he implores, "We should touch and agree," an echo to Black Up's "Recollections of the Wraith." His intermittent interjections, "No like really soon, though," and "I'm a black belt, 11 and 12th degree!" add a nice charm to an otherwise thin track-between-other-tracks.
7. The Ballad of Lt. Maj. Winnings
Shuffling, starting and stopping like a robot gone wrong, this "ballad" plays out as another critique of the cash-choked hip hop establishment. "This is a dance show! Dance sucka!" Butler announces ironically over a beat that never stops its shift between 5/8 and 6/8 time. Obviously, this is not hardly dance material. The Parliament-esque cosmic mysticism again returns in short snippets of tongue-in-cheek narration, like intercom announcements on a trip to the stars: "The sound was there since the first collision of stars in the galaxy. The tritone will produce six tension intervals, primordial and scientifically sound ratio factors." Outside our window, Earth slowly shrinks to a tiny blue dot.6.5
8. Soundview
Possibly the weakest track on Lese Majesty, it serves as little more than a welcome mat into the next "suite," "Palace War Council Meeting."5.0
9. Ishmael
A continuation of the Moby Dick sub-narrative, and seemingly a self-portrait of sorts for Butler who insists that "Every down is a audible. Every style I rock is swallowed whole," a sentiment that is not hard to believe. Eventually he asks, "What is behind the veil?" In the following nine tracks, it seems, we'll find out. Maraire's continued exploration of a seemingly infinite synth palette reaches its lightest and most oneiric moment here. A nice prelude to the simple, and simply on beat delivered on the next track.7.0
10. ...Down 155th in the MCM Snorkel
An homage to an era of "Dapper Dan suits," "fair ones" and "kitted up Maximas" a la Digable Planets. As the title suggests this is music to cruise to as well as a reminder of what is lasting and still important to Shabazz.8.5
11. Divine of Form
Countdown to entropy. Time-space warps and weaves into a kind of musical singularity. This is the event horizon before the dive into blackness.7.0
12. #CAKE
Certainly the strangest track on the record, and one of the most fascinating in Butler's adoption of a completely Dionysian voice, the effect of which is complete disorientation and almost catharsis by the time we reach what could be called a chorus if it held any musical resemblance to the sounds in which it is nestled. After the second drop through what could be dubbed a musical trap-door, Butler and the beat return fully zipped up, helmets on, as if to blast even deeper into the cosmos. The effect of the rhythmic velocity and Trekkie synth melody is hilarious and a little unsettling.8.1
13. Colluding Oligarchs
Back in familiar territory, Maraire reclaims the reins, if only for a moment, to take us zigging and bouncing through the grooves of Saturn's rings. But, of course, things fall apart, including the beat and we're back in the overriding mood of the record later 1/3, a mood that could easily be described as sinister. The duo is on campaign, following through with the plans drawn up in the war room of "Suite Three."7.5
14. Suspicion of a Shape
Is this what "lies behind the veil?" Another threshold and a palate-cleanser of sorts, at 0:40 a voice intones, "This is cleansing." Or did he say, "This is clumsy"? It's impossible to tell as both are apt in the case of Lese Majesty, one being the necessary come down after the preceding 13 track centrifuge and the other, the band's own acknowledgement of their folly, even if that folly is meant ironically and sarcastically. Melodically, this one of the more lovely tracks on the record, featuring Maraire's sensuous mbira.7.7
15. MindGlitch Keytar TM Theme
An anxiety-inducing trip through all that is wrong with hip hop, i.e. materiality, egotism, and alienation from self. The repeated phrases "mind-glitch" and "I'm rich" conspire to hold the listener at arms-length, though of course, it's simply a nose-thumbing in the direction of all that is superficial in the game. Shabazz is intentionally trying to exhaust the listener, like some sort of sonic sweat lodge in which the lower passions are purged and the mind freed of the body.6.0
16. Motion Sickness
The critique expands as Butler levels the lyrical cross-hairs on the hip hop royalty, Maraire now musically in a parallel universe, cool and too distant to care. One of Palaceer Lazarro's finer performances on the record.7.5
17. New Black Wave
The track opens with another guest vocal from THEESatisfaction's Harris-White as she croons, "Neeewwww," or, another more unsettling possibility, "Nooooo." and Eno-esque synth sounds reminiscent of Another Green World's "Little Fishes." This could be taken as a sort of ars poetica on the part of Butler, as he announces the rap fin de siecle and the dawning of a new epoch in blackness, though what exactly he means by blackness is still unclear. Is it all-inclusive or does he mean it in the "traditional," Amiri Baraka sense? Whatever it is, the light looks lovely. But c'mon, "I was made for the ladies!" How far does the tongue-in-cheek wink-and-nod go?6.9
18. Sonic MythMap for the Trip Black
That the pair have intentionally exploded their own mythos is evidence of a sort of hip-hop guru status, a wise and wizened style, something akin to healthy fuck-all, but oceanic, Zen-like. If this seems like overstatement, remember that Palaceer Lazaro, aka Butterfly aka Ishmael Butler, has been in the rap game since 1992, when Digable Planets first landed a record deal, and Tendai Maraire, being the son of Mbira master Dumisani Maraire, was basically born into musical royalty.6.5
Written by Daniel DeVaughn
Daniel DeVaughn is the executive director of the arts journal Cumulus, as well as the co-curator of The Daily Dive, an online forum for the exchange of new music and visual art.

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