Album Review: Shabazz Palaces - Lese Majesty

There’s only one thing that’s remained constant on the weird, mystical journey of Seattle experimental hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces: progressive thinking. Everything else is up for grabs. Where their debut EPs were bombastic and shocking in their odd use of sampling and jazz rhythms in a bass-heavy hip-hop style, they switched it all up for their studio debut, Black Up. There, a hefty layer of haze filled the air, letting the heavy punches fade into the mist a bit, but giving the record equal size and scope with help of the shadows. But it’s be a couple years now - more than we’ve ever had to wait for new Shabazz material, and that means things are going to change again. But as we can trust from Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire at this point, that change is going to be amazing. You may not have any idea what to expect, but you are going to love it. All of this could not be more the case with Lese Majesty. Shabazz Palaces have upped the ante on every front and brought the fog nearer to the dawn for their second full length effort, and this second offering is in every way as memorable and provocative as the first. Shabazz Palaces continue to prove themselves a visceral, important voice in the future of hip-hop and a vital organ of the progressive Seattle music scene.

Lese Majesty” is the French phrase for sacrilege against royalty. That’s an important concept to start Shabazz’s new record with. While a couple of its 18 tracks are more radio-friendly than others, there are no real singles - in fact, the album’s structure isn’t even conducive to their inclusion. Lese Majesty is really a seven track record, with each of the seven divided up into manageable pieces. Each of these seven “suites” is a different piece of an overall narrative. And no, this isn’t a good kid, m.A.A.d city type deal where Shabazz paint themselves as the saviors of hip-hop through use of weird magic and druggy painting technique - nothing like that at all. The narrative of Lese Majesty one of rejection and insult. There’s no resolution to be found here. There are only pointed fingers, muscles flexed, and then a step back on both feet at the end. So what are the fingers pointed at, you may ask? Shabazz are pissed at how hip-hop culture is portrayed in the modern day, and are convinced there are wires and puppet strings to take an axe to if cyclical behavior is to be avoided.

The focus on Lese Majesty fades into focus slowly, and by Suite 7 track “New Black Wave”, it’s up so close and personal that it’s almost disorienting. “Dawn In Luxor” opens the record with messages of freedom and opportunity, “throwing cocktails at the Führer” and throwing off chains from Pharaohs long dead. But yet, there is a hint at the idea of contentment. “Glitter and gold - there will always be a difference”, Butler raps. It’s one of the essential themes on Lese Majesty: what defines a man’s freedom to be who he wants? “Forerunner Foray” takes the abstract and gives it modern day context - the world isn’t perfect and we all hustle where we can to make it by. Sometimes you get glitter, sometimes you get gold, and other times you get nothing at all. Then, “They Come In Gold” defines a personal ideology to navigate this complicated context.

After some incredible instrumentation and a variety of social palette cleansers in Suite 2 (seriously, the guitar on “Solemn Swears” is magical), Suite 3 starts introducing some conflict. “Soundview” has Butler repeating “Mimicking gods!” as a distorted voice tries to butter up a girl of interest in stereotypical hip-hop language. “Ishmael” lays down the fucking law, as Butler acts the sage halfway through our story to tell listeners to take heed of the forces at work behind the veil. But for those that choose to ignore, there’s a wealth of problems waiting just on the other side.

Suite 4 is aptly titled Pleasure Milieu, perhaps the best descriptor of the unattainable “majesty” that hip-hop culture is indoctrinated to worship. “#CAKE” is a jungle-hinted burner that sees Butler and THEESatisfaction’s Cat Harris-White playing on the classic idiom. The hashtag is purposeful and meaningful - it’s not a marketing ploy. The hypocrisy at hand is trending, and the trend is almost irreversible. On Suite 5 and 6 the dark underbelly of the glitter comes into full view. Marketing schemes and cultural segregation let the lies live on. Though the majesty at the end of the tunnel is nearly unattainable, the bureau boys never silence the loudspeakers preaching opportunity and dreams to be fulfilled. Worse, the dream is never redefined to a more progressive ideal. Hip-hop is just fine letting the cyclical mandate remain stuck in the dirt for all but a minuscule few. Suite 6 explores the bitter aftermath before Shabazz take it back to square one on Suite 7. Lese Majesty is a powerful message of rejecting the norm on both sides of the equator. For hip-hop in 2014, it is a message that can’t be missed.

Musically, Lese Majesty is a wonderful build on Black Up. The suite structure allows Shabazz to groove out on their themes a bit more, in sharp contrast to the sporadic shape-shifting of the previous album. A three-minute track on Black Up might have four or five different beats, atmospheric breaks, or otherwise. On Lese Majesty, while more chaotic at the elemental level, there’s much more of a sense of continuity. Each suite is like one organic mass moving through space and time. Plus, Shabazz’s usual crew of collaborators (loosely known as Black Constellation) is back in full form here, representing the best in Seattle hip-hop and electronic music. Erik Blood is working the mix, while THEESatisfaction offer their wonderful vocal services to make tracks like “#CAKE” even more enthralling. From beginning to end, Lese Majesty is a single tapestry that never loses the listener, musically. Considering how lush and maximalist Shabazz have a tendency to be, this is quite an accomplishment on this record. Well done.

Shabazz Palaces have given us a brilliantly unique record that continues a conversation started only very recently in the larger scheme of hip-hop. On Kanye West’s Yeezus, he questioned the value of affluence in a culture that accepts luxury as a given in hip-hop. Affluent society sees “New Slaves”, slaves to the glitter that Shabazz speak about. On Lese Majesty, Shabazz expand on that idea in a brilliant and deeply affecting manner, only to militantly reject the pleasure milieu at hand. And truly, what better context for this message than a Shabazz record - captivating without need for cheap radio-baiting tricks or objectifying undertones, Shabazz are as progressive as the curve gets. If this isn’t the future of hip-hop, I don’t know what is.

Lese Majesty is out this week on Sub Pop records. As usual, there’s a kickass Loser edition vinyl (it’s purple!) you DO want, and there’s also a normal vinyl and CD, any of which will rock your speakers with equal power and command. Shabazz Palaces play an album release show next week at Neumos on August 1! You want to be there! Grab tickets here!

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Live Around Town This Week

Charles Bradley // photo by Morgen Schuler

Tuesday, July 29th

The Donkeys, Ephrata, Keaton Collective at Sunset Tavern // 21+ (more info)

Wednesday, July 30th

• Out to Lunch Concert Series Presents Michael Powers at Metropolitan Park North Tower // All Ages (more info)

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Song of the Day: Total Control - Flesh War

photo by Karl Scullin

Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs, and recordings from independent artists that our DJs think you should hear. Today’s song, featured on the Midday Show with Cheryl Waters, is “Flesh War” by Total Control from the 2014 album Typical System on Iron Lung Records.

Total Control - Flesh War (MP3)

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Capitol Hill Block Party 2014: Friday, Part 2 - Iska Dhaaf, Man Or Astro Man?, CHILDBIRTH, Shaprece, and more

Capitol Hill Block Party

photo by Dave Lichterman

Every summer, the crowds pack into Pike street between Broadway and 12th to throw a party unlike any other. Capitol Hill Block Party is a tried and true block party, rocking the streets until 12:30 in the morning, showering them in confetti, and giving both attendees and nearby Capitol Hill apartment dwellers a show to remember for months to come. This year is no different! Check the KEXP blog for coverage of the full weekend’s experience!

As I approached the main gate, notebook in hand and a smile on my face, I heard the distant tone of the Main Stage soundcheck. I followed the growing crowd to the stage - taking in the festival that I have always heard such great things about. Soft and sultry, Shy Girls entered into focus as he sang, “Burning girl, your flame burns, but please don’t burn away.” This focus expanded as sound erupted from the keyboards to the left and right of Dan Vidmar, frontman and creator of the Portland, OR, based project. The band sports a balanced stage presence as they surround Vidmar with their bodies of sound. Despite Shy’s intimate interactions between himself and the microphone, what stole the show was the multitalented and Joaquin Phoenix-looking drummer who alternated between pounding on his digital drum-pad and blasting his woodwinds through the main stage’s oversized speakers.

Shy Girls

photo by Victoria Holt

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Capitol Hill Block Party: Friday, Part 1 - Spoon, Matt & Kim, ODESZA, A$AP Ferg, and more

photo by Dave Lichterman

Every summer, the crowds pack into Pike street between Broadway and 12th to throw a party unlike any other. Capitol Hill Block Party is a tried and true block party, rocking the streets until 12:30 in the morning, showering them with confetti, and giving both attendees and nearby Capitol Hill apartment dwellers a show to remember for months to come. This year is no different! Check the KEXP blog for coverage of the full weekend’s experience!

photo by Dave Lichterman

Seattle dream pop duo Lemolo got things kicked off on the Vera Stage on Friday in dazzling fashion. The two have dialed into a really powerful live presentation, with shimmering, reverberated guitars and pounding, forward-motion drums. A long time favorite on the underground Seattle scene, Lemolo started the weekend as the first of many reputable local acts to show off their best colors here at Capitol Hill Block Party.
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All Tomorrow’s Parties Iceland 2014: Icelandic Adventures

Press Bus Tour

all photos by Victoria Holt

This past weekend I had the pleasure of journeying to Iceland to cover the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. Check out my coverage of the festival here. Whenever we had free time, we made it a priority to get out and see some local sights. Here are a few of the random and beautiful things Iceland had to offer.

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Pemberton Music Festival: Sunday - Outkast, Frank Ocean, Modest Mouse, St. Vincent, and more

all photos by Dave Lichterman

Up above Whistler in British Columbia, Pemberton Music Festival returns this year for the first time since 2008. It’s ambitious tag line, “The Coachella of Canada”, isn’t too bold at all. In a triumphant return, the festival features one of the best overall music and comedy lineups of the year, and we are proud to provide coverage through photos and summaries all weekend.

California indie pop group Foxygen are one of those bands that you kind of have to see to believe. On the record, the group has a starkly unique pop sound, mixing 60s and 70s psychedelic pop and disco texture with an Iggy Pop sensibility. But live, the pieces all come together to form a clearer whole. At the keys, Jonathan Rado in his fur coat looks like Bob Dylan gone off his rocker, while polished guitar, bass, and drums decorate the background as if pulled from a for-television 70s performance, with backing singers and dancers off to stage left. But in front, Sam France is a man possessed. Part Iggy Pop, part Johnny Rotten, part pale flamboyant angel from another world, he is a sharp contrast to everything else on stage. Crossing the stage erratically, almost throwing himself off stage numerous times, strangling himself with the microphone cord and stand, and jumping off of everything in sight, there’s zero continuity. His interim banter is so ADD it’s almost impossible to respond to. For “Teenage Alien Blues”, he’s Saturday Night Fever on top of the drum set before jumping off and pretending to have a back failure hitting the ground. The live rendering of Foxygen gives flesh and blood to their music’s undertones. A classic, glistening era disrupted by the immediacy and moment-to-moment disarray of punk music - there’s perhaps no better way to capture the essence of life. Foxygen burned through a short but impactful set kicking Sunday off to an excellent start.
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Music That Matters Podcast: Summer Fun

Check out some of the KEXP DJ’s favorite artists from the Pacific Northwest and around the world on-the-go. KEXP’s Music That Matters weekly podcast brings you an exclusive mix of new music from the world’s best independent artists.

Luluc // photo by Beth Crook

Currently, you’ll hear:

Music That Matters, Vol. 418 - Summer Fun
So much music, so little time. Midday Show host Cheryl Waters has compiled a collection of summer songs that she loves, listen to find out why Cheryl always plays more than one Spoon song.

1. Luluc - Without A Face
2. Sharon Van Etten - Taking Chances
3. Sleepy Kitty - Don’t You Start
4. Liars - Mess on a Mission
5. Chad VanGaalen - Where Are You?
6. Young Fathers - Low
7. Benjamin Booker - Violent Shiver
8. French Style Furs - All The Way Down
9. Spoon - Rent I Pay
10. Spoon - Sister Jack
11. Eels - Mistakes of My Youth
12. Rural Alberta Advantage - Terrified
13. J Mascis - Every Morning
14. Total Control - Flesh War
15. White Fence - Mr. Adams/Who Feels Right?

Listen here: (MP3)

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You can subscribe to all of our podcasts here.

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Friday Music News

  • A Sunny Day in Glasgow will drop a 5-track EP called No Death exclusively in the UK, but for those of us on the other side of the pond, the band has shared a remix of the EP’s opening number. This stunning interpretation of “Bye Bye Big Ocean” was remixed by Kurt Feldman, better known as Ice Choir. Check it out. [Stereogum]

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Live Video: Courtney Barnett

photo by Matthew B. Thompson (view set)

Courtney Barnett may prefer the mundane, but that doesn’t mean we have to. In the songs on her debut album, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, really two early EPs mashed together, the young Australian singer-songwriter relates with hyperfocus the details of a day or of moments of average significance -- a failed attempt at gardening, an invitation to a friendly gathering, a post-breakup rant, an after-party adventure, a concerned call from a mom -- this can all happen to you! Yet while Courtney Barnett revels the routine like a high modernist (it’s not for naught she namechecks Ezra Pound in a song like “History Eraser”), she leaves off their lofty language. Her comments are very clever, but her prose is unadorned. It’s the honesty of her delivery and the raw intensity of her performances that elevate each moment to uncommon experiences of sense and sound. As you’ll see and hear during her recent set at The Triple Door, performed exclusively as part of KEXP’s VIP Club concert series, each song ultimately becomes an excuse to rock out. With Courtney Barnett, it’s always a wonder and never a waste.

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