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!