With Balls As Big As Its Brain: Shabazz Palaces' Lese Majesty

Undeniably singular and visionary hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces have once again come down to earth to drop off an album.
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Undeniably singular and visionary hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces have once again come down to earth to drop off an album.
Shabazz Palaces

opinion byBRENDAN FRANK

Last year, Voyager 1 became the first human-made satellite to reach interstellar space. You have to figure that the day this was announced, Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire were ecstatic, and then got over it pretty quickly. As significant an achievement as it was for humanity, the Seattle duo who record as Shabazz Palaces, are thinking bigger at this point – and farther away. Their vision for the future is one where weed, whiskey and wormholes are nothing more than part of a day in the life. Lese Majesty, the follow-up to their surreal 2011 debut Black Up, is loose and vaporous, as if its predecessorhas submitted to the laws of entropy for the past three years.

Not hip-hop in any traditional sense of the word, Lese Majesty seems to be purposely constructed to elude even the loosest use of genre tags. The production is closer to a Nicolas Jaar or James Blake than anything hip-hop is toying with at the moment. It’s innovative, it’s slippery, and it’s bound to piss off a lot of purists. Butler and Maraire are recruiting for their time travelin’, mind javelin voyage, and not everyone will be on board.

Ringleader and wordsmith Butler opts for evocation more than storytelling, Mariare’s music doesn’t so much engage as entrance, and most of the pieces on here function as interludes more than actual songs. As if to compensate, the eighteen songs are bundled into a total of seven suites. This is an album that thirsts to redefine what can be described as hip-hop. It lays out its own vision, blazing forward at ludicrous speed and tweaking the noses of traditionalists in the process.

It’s largely a successful effort. Butler and Maraire’s refusal to present their stockpile of ideas as anything resembling a structured song makes Lese Majesty a difficult work to comprehend. It’s easy to explore, but even easier to get lost in. From the effects used on the levitative vocals to the gaseous electronics that may as well be virtual particles, there’s a weightless quality to everything. Tracks bleed into one anotherand nothing holds its shape for more than 90 seconds. The closest thing you’ll find to a single is probably the previously heard tracks, “They Come In Gold” and “#CAKE”. The latter, with its rubberized beat and a hook with catchphrase potential ricochets off the walls, and it’s the only track that bears any sort of resemblance to anything found on Black Up.

Inasmuch as it is possible, Butler is something of a constant here. When the songs appear ready to unravel, which is often, he smoothly holds things together. His mischievous, whip-smart demeanor is relaxed enough to convince you that the future is nothing to worry about. The album’s title, a reference to a piece of obscure law intended to prevent affronts to monarchs, plays perfectly into the persona he’s cultivating here.

In all honesty, it’s not a bad place to be; the man is refusing to grow up because youth is more fun, but he still has wisdom to spare. This manifests as a continual ability to contort and accommodate profundity and levity in the same breath. “Life’s a bitch/Treat her good or she’ll get you back,” he murmurs on “Motion Sickness”. And when he references “higher beings” on “Harem Aria”, both interpretations seem equally plausible.

That same ambiguity makes Lese Majesty a journey worth retaking, and is helped along by the fact the much of what Butler is saying is obscured. He’s more than your archetypal troublemaker. His best run comes during “Suite 2: Touch and Agree”, which runs from the excellent and too-short “Solemn Swears” to the silver-tounged techno of “The Ballad of Lt. Maj. Winnings”. This particular suite best exemplifies the breadth of his abilities as an emcee, ranging from impish wordplay (“I don’t eat pork like Mr. Rourke/I’m coming up like Donald Duck/I scream and yell like Samuel L.”) to warmhearted revelations (“I never thought that I would find out somebody/Who never thought that they would find someone as me”).

Aside from the occasional boast, Lese Majesty is almost obsessed with being unconventional, but the fact that it so squarely hits its mark so often makes some of the more self-indulgent, weird-for-the-sake-of-it moments (I’m looking at you, “Suspicion of a Shape”) much easier to forgive. The absurdity of the whole thing is a big part of the album’s appeal; its balls are as big as its brain. Shabazz Palaces are often as mystifying as they are mind-bending, but they’re in a class all their own. A-