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."