Shabazz Palaces - Lese Majesty | Album Review | By Volume

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Shabazz Palaces

Lese Majesty

“To be us it takes leaps of faith.”

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Author: on July 29, 2014
Sub Pop

Lese Majesty comes as a surprise – the kind of surprise that, when plotted on the trajectory of Shabazz Palaces, makes complete sense as some sort of,“Ahhh!” Keyser Söze-esque epiphany. On seeing the tracklist, a colleague expressed disbelief – their second album has nearly double the number of tracks on Black Up, a debut that taught us to expect the unexpected. Apparently, we haven’t learned our lesson. Of course the eighteen tracks are divvied up into six suites of narration that are as chronological as they aren’t (there’s definitely room for the listener to bridge the gaps, however their understanding pleases). Of course the record was premiered out of the blue at the Laser Dome in the group’s (and label’s) hometown, Seattle. Of course the guests (including a returning Catherine Harris-White of THEESatisfaction) are absorbed into the greater movement of The Black Constellation, with little distinction between personas, influences and contexts amidst readily unintelligible lyrics. For all their unheralded hubris, their ethic boils down to a nebulous reservoir of creativity that could be as simple as ex-Digable Planets rapper Ishmael Butler on vocal duties, chasing up Tendai Maraire’s jazz-hip-hop beats. Beats that chuck out canon jazz for musical deviations from some other technologically-advanced planet somewhere, though they’ve all got hands in all pies filling the record with subconscious, external influences. It’s not clear who has done what exactly, but what is clear is that it doesn’t matter, it’s all Shabazz Palaces and it’s part of a very thorough, detailed exploration of dark matter that exists in different genres. Rearranging the words of the penultimate track title describes their sound fairly well – Black New Wave.

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Shabazz Palaces aren’t concept artists. Their releases are contributions to the overarching Shabazz Palaces project with a longer-term angle, so on reflection it doesn’t seem very odd that the suites for Lese Majesty were curated in retrospect. Opening suite “The Phasing Shift” is the duo doing what they’ve done best in the past, pushing their sense of regality with North African vernacular and stretching hip-hop’s vocabulary without ever going full Canibus. They never really leave hip-hop either, with songs like “Forerunner Foray” arriving as prescient victory laps, proclaiming their presence on higher planes as Butler raps, “Some might call uneven / my kind call it leanin’.” “Palace War Council Meeting” is thematically similar to that first suite, seemingly exploring the group’s origins, boasting the most explicitly jazz manifestation in the form of a double bass interlude, followed by an unofficial Shabazz Palaces theme tune, “Ishmael”: “Intimacies I doubt you know,” “All of our stories told in codes,” “From a future’s past platoon, brought forth in rhymes / a secret memory of way better times.” Butler also muses over the people he’s lost since those times; “Down 115th in the MCM Snorkel” rolls in as an homage to the hood, reflecting on the hip-hop origin story sans rose-tints.

An ongoing thread through Lese Majesty is the nature of the hustler, self-described on “Solemn Swears” and alluded to through a scene-setting sample of Lightnin’ Rod’s Hustler’s Convention. Butler goes on to attack the substance of the hustler’s dreams and fantasies on ‘#CAKE’, specifically the fleeting nature of success and unchanged realities, “They gon’ always slice my portion, bruh.” ‘Cake’ itself makes several appearances, scattered across the record’s lyrics, the other side of the hustler coin that keeps the motion in perpetuation, always egging it on, at times leading us through unconventional places.

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Of all the unusual areas Shabazz Palaces could lead us through, “Touch & Agree” feels like the most unanticipated. The suite sees Butler fall in love, namely on “Noetic Noiromantics” wherein he comes to realise his world has completely changed. There’s a dazed feel conveyed through his enunciations, which is only exacerbated by the grammatically improper word order in lines like, “There goes the rain and comes in a new light,” and, “I never thought that I would find else somebody / who never thought that there was fine someone as me.” It’s not all starry-eyed night sky gazing though, as later tracks playing bait-and-switch with our preconceptions too. “Colluding Oligarchs” hones dauntingly paranoid riffs before sobering up on “Suspicion of a Shape”, only to be followed up with the dizziest suite on Lese Majesty, “High Climb to the Gallows”. “MindGlitch Keytar TM Theme” might be the least Shabazz Palaces track that Shabazz Palaces have released, juggling uncomfortably upbeat kicks with tearing synths and an uncharacteristically straightforward vocal delivery. Fortunately it soon melts into a highlight from the duo’s career – “Motion Sickness” is a spiralling flurry of surreal sounds, life flashing through the mind on the way up the “High Climb to the Gallows”. If Shabazz Palaces’ music appears to exist in the past, present and future, “Motion Sickness” seems to  take place outside of the time we know, an eternity sealed within a moment. Despite the outro chapter ahead of it, it’s here that they make their definitive statement: “To be us it takes leaps of faith.”

Despite their otherworldly instrumentation, Shabazz Palaces maintain stonefaced realism and conviction at all times, and feeling their lyrical abstractions grope through the uncharted ether is somehow as real as it gets. That’s just one of the many paradoxes on Lese Majesty, an album in which Butler boasts, “I’m having my cake and I’m eating cake.” They’re batting for the listener’s side, which seems counter-intuitive considering their cold, obfuscating attitude – there’s rarely any sense of altruism, naive idealism or self-compromise; they’re not here to play friends. The solidarity they somehow retain with listeners is just another paradox then, even if it’s an incidental parallel towards their goal: They bat on our side as we’re all people, constantly at odds with each other and ever-longing for growth of the self in some way or another, and that growth is what they value highest. Shabazz Palaces’ transhumanism is conducted through spirituality. They seem to dive inwards in order to transcend, deconstructing the nature of the human on “They Come in Gold” as a method of freeing themselves of their anthropomorphic bonds. Everything about their mindset, and about Lese Majesty itself, is fluid and intuition-led, cradling harmony amidst perceived contradictions – no agenda, just constant spontaneous reflection, retrospection and contemplation of the future. Thus everything from hip-hop culture to high art, political leanings and epiphanal social musings all bob and weave between beats organically. Shabazz Palaces are mysterious without being subversively esoteric, urging our eyelids to lift and reveal the worlds around us, trailblazing onwards with the naturally cosmic Lese Majesty, and holding the door open for us in their wake too.

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