Release Date: Jul 29, 2014
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Rap, Alternative Rap, Left-Field Hip-Hop
Hip-hop is constantly being tweaked and nudged in new directions, but rarely is it reconfigured as radically, and thrillingly, as on this second album from Shabazz Palaces. Their previous work set the template – free-flowing, futuristic rap dusted with spiritual jazz, dense with allusions to ancient Egypt and outer space – but the Seattle duo are only now filling out their ambitions. Immediately striking are the album's lush, otherworldly soundscapes; the lyrics take longer to unpick but, as before, esoteric references are undercut by wry humour and earthbound concerns: They Come in Gold and #CAKE take sideways swipes at the vanities and indulgences of contemporary life.
Named after the French term for criminally offending or insulting a head of state, Lese Majesty is the second album by Shabazz Palaces duo Ishmael Butler (formerly known as Butterfly of Digable Planets fame) and Tendai Maraire, and it is the hip-hop equivalent of sensory deprivation. Not through the pummeling, antagonistic beats of, say, Death Grips, but through the creation of a sonic world that completely eats up the listener’s consciousness as they get lost in the duo’s incredible, beautiful, and horrifying sophomore release. The album’s 18 tracks are split into seven suites of similar lyrical and rhythmic flow; some listeners will totally feel Butler and Maraire’s game here, while others may be content to simply nod along.
“Dawn in Luxor,” the opening track of Shabazz Palaces' Lese Majesty begins with a slow, sumptuous descent into atmospheric ecstasy, defined by its expansive embrace of opposites: past and future, organic and electronic sounds, paired images of Egyptian pyramids and space travel. It's clear from this meticulously conceived opener that the album is after something different, a sense that only deepens as it unspools, moving through a carefully constructed series of 18 tracks, bundled within seven distinct suites. This is hop-hop with a singularly eccentric eye, full of patient, elegantly appointed songs, made even more enticing by their reserved composure.
Launched in a shroud of mystery, hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces were much more forthcoming while promoting the release of this sophomore effort, coming clean that former Digable Planets member Butterfly -- now Palaceer Lazaro -- and instrumentalist Tendai "Baba" Maraire were the men behind the music. Good thing too, as otherwise Lese Majesty would be an almost unidentifiable object, falling into the genre of "left-field rap" by default because "Basquiat-styled broken boombox boom-bap" isn't available. The murkiness of cloud-rap, the off-kilter rhymes of Danny Brown, and the weird, spacy humor of Kool Keith all have their influences over this avant transmission, and while the opening "Dawn in Luxor" suggests the launch of a Deltron 3030-type journey, there's something utterly unique and artistically rich going on with this combination of soul poetry and intergalactic funk.
Shabazz Palaces’ Sub Pop debut Black Up breathed indelible soul into the Seattle duo’s formidable style, an assemblage of chaotic grooves that spun out, pivoted on a crafty turn, and hightailed it home along the back roads. The 2011 album cut former Digable Planets member Ishmael Butler’s opaque mysticism loose on a palette of intricate, dreamy soundscapes provided by resident producer Tendai Maraire, sacrificing traditional songwriting conventions like verses and choruses to sojourn to rap’s frayed edges. Ish’s musings on love resonated in their leveraging of heady imagery with wizened world-weariness; his songs triumphed in their arrangement of familiar ideas into peculiar shapes.
Big Boi breeds pit bulls. Snoop Dogg, it turns out, prefers cats. 50 Cent, joker that he is, owns a schnauzer named Oprah Winfrey. It speaks volumes about Palaceer Lazaro, hip-hop sorcerer behind Shabazz Palaces, that when it comes to posing with pets, he chooses to be pictured taking two well-fed pythons out for a slither.
A reverie, a DMT-fuelled wander through the subconscious of hip hop; whatever way you cut it, Lese Majesty is way out there. Shabazz Palaces' sophomore release travels deep into the astral plane, fully armed with gelatinous synth globules, anomalous lyricism and untold confidence in their mission. The mission itself: shatter all preconceptions of what Shabazz Palaces are supposed to sound like while pandering to absolutely no one.Lese Majesty has no hits to speak of, nothing you could easily extract and stick in a radio slot, which is kind of the essence of this album.
Hip-hop is not a genre much given to second acts. For all the respect afforded the old school and talk of a clearly defined "golden age", there's no real rap equivalent of rock's Rick Rubin-helmed comeback album; and the recent veneration of the late-80s and early-90s "boom bap" sound has not led to a renaissance in the careers of its original practitioners. A middle-aged rapper producing the most acclaimed and cutting-edge music of their career 20 years after their debut seems an improbable notion, which would make Ishmael Butler a pretty extraordinary figure, even if his latest album wasn't a collection of 18 tracks grouped into seven "astral suites of recorded happenings" called things like Murkings on the Oxblood Stairway, wrapped in an embossed, faux-sharkskin sleeve, which furthermore received its world premiere – complete with accompanying light show – at Seattle's Pacific Science Centre Laser Dome.
The dreamworld. A relative unknown. A place we go to at the end of each day to escape the present. A realm of anxieties and desires. A land that lives while you sleep, and dies while you live. On the surface, Shabazz Palaces are just another rap group, the next in line to the hipster-hop throne ….
As Shabazz Palaces, Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire make fiercely independent, delightfully avant-garde hip-hop. Lese Majesty (or lèse-majesté ) means an offence against the sovereign or state, and the album lives up to its name with anti-establishment, anti-capitalist themes. At first, the 18 tracks seem daunting compared to their shorter predecessors Black Up and Of Light.
Shabazz Palaces is officially the duo of rapper Palaceer Lazarro and multi-instrumentalist Tendai “Fly Guy ‘Dai” Maraire, but it’s more fun to think of Shabazz as a project, one imagined from the ground up without a fear of heights. Frankly, they don’t sound like earthlings. Lazarro actually uses extraterrestrial language in his already cryptic lyrics, which, combined with production that recalls the rap-informed loops of Flying Lotus or even the Floyd-isms of Nicolas Jaar’s Darkside project, creates an endless-seeming atmosphere of synth trickles, distant drums, sinkhole vocals, and various stereophonic blip-bleep-bloops.
Seattle’s innovative tandem has returned. Rapper Palaceer Lazaro (formerly Butterfly of Digable Planets) and well-versed instrumentalist Tendai ‘Baba’ Maraire unite to form the experimental hip-hop group known as Shabazz Palaces. The resulting sound is something that cannot possibly be confined to a single genre, rather it’s shuffled under the experimental hip-hop umbrella for lack of a truly descriptive label.
Few rap crews are as far-out as Seattle's Shabazz Palaces, whose 2011 breakthrough LP, Black Up, cloaked deep verses and sneaky pop sense beneath plenty of weirdness, with beats and rhymes that sounded like they'd been fed through a fish-tank aerator. On their second LP, ex-Digable Planets MC Ishmael Butler builds even grander spaces to space out in. "Huey beats and Malcolm flow/Intimacies I doubt you know," he posits on "Ishmael," part of a keystone suite that flashes back to the Afrocentric Nineties hip-hop Butler was schooled in.
The title of Shabazz Palaces’ second full-length, ‘Lese Majesty’, refers to the crime of not giving complete worship and reverence towards a leader. Speak up or dispute a king’s reign and you can expect a devilish knock at the door. Grammy winner Ishmael Butler isn’t a conventional revolutionary, but an experimental edge was exposed in Technicolor on his latest project’s 2011 full-length ‘Black Up’.
Shabazz Palaces won’t ever make a single. The conceptual whole is sacred to MC and producer Ishmael Butler, who spit funky rhymes with trio Digable Planets back in the ’90s. Shabazz Palaces’ 2011’s Black Up peered inward, waxing poetic on black consciousness, while latest Lese Majesty projects outward, macro, mapping a lonely Martian’s movement through this Earth and beyond.
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.
Who are Shabazz Palaces? How long have they been on earth exactly? You might have first recognised the high-pitched voice of Ishmael Butler on their debut album Black Up, as ‘Butterfly’ from the early 90’s rap outfit, Digable Planets. But even then, the true identity of these nomadic sorcerers remained somewhat ambiguous. Like their music, Shabazz Palaces are a thing of ancient myth.
The story of leftfield hip-hop is as shambolic as the records the term covers. But if the history of rap to the left of the mainstream is tricky, any enthusiast will tell you that Shabazz Palaces, the group comprised of core members Tendai Mariare and Ishmael Butler aka Palaceer Lazaro, formerly of Digable Planets, are among its contemporary leading lights. It’s telling of both Shabazz Palaces’ influence and catholic approach that not only are they signed to Sub Pop, a label more commonly associated with indie rock than rap, but also that Butler was recently appointed one of the label’s A&Rs.
It's so easy to assume that just because we don't quite grasp an album the first time round, it's cleverer than us and, therefore, brilliant. Shabazz Palaces' first LP, Black Up performed this trick superbly, but you see, it really was brilliant - a marvellous, virtuosic concoction that treated idiosyncrasy as a default setting, writhed around in its own intelligence like a particularly faeces-clad pig, and chucked in just about enough head-bob to make it palatable. Listening to its follow-up, Lese Majesty, you're tempted to grab Shabazz majordomo Ishmael Butler's wrist and give him a curt "Look, we're not doing this again, I don't know if I've got the energy for your shenanigans," but it only takes a song and a half to realise that we're better off just letting him get on with it.
Shabazz Palaces - Lese Majesty (Sub Pop)A little more than two decades ago, the trio of Mary Ann “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira, Craig “Doodlebug” Irving and Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler released the album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), a body of work that contained the single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat). ” Unlike many of their aggressive rap peers, Digable Planets sought to create a revolution against politicians and pro-lifers with peace signs, references to higher intergalactic purpose and a penchant for jazz mixed with piecemeal beats and samples by Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins. On their third album as Shabazz Palaces, Butler (now aka Palaceer Lazaro) and producer Tendai Maraire are still defying the hip-hop stereotype and even their own stamp.
One of the most overused cliches in music is that an artist or an album doesn’t sound like anything else. From a journalist’s prospective, it’s a pretty lazy phrase to throw around that alludes to a lack of research and a reliance on hyperbole, not to mention in most cases it’s just downright inaccurate. Well, after struggling with it for a while and doing copious amounts of research, I’ve decided I’m okay with saying that Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty does not sound or feel like any other hip hop album out there.
The title of Shabazz Palaces’ second full-length record roughly translates to an offense against a sovereign or a state. And with this trippy, often transporting song cycle, the Seattle-based band led by Ishmael Butler seems to be thumbing its nose at the state of contemporary hip-hop. Butler (formerly of Digable Planets), working here without multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, expands the genre’s language (literally) and boundaries with meditative songs intricately brocaded with effects, keyboards, and minimalist electronic beats.
It’s a darn good thing the Glow doesn’t do ratings any more. I know I like Lese Majesty; it’s currently in my top five for 2014. But just how much I like it, exactly, is a difficult thing to quantify…and a hypothetical where I have to assign this record some kind of number score between 1 and 100, well, the thought is stupefying. That critical dissonance is part and parcel with the signal ambience Lese Majesty transmits.
In the outré-rap sweepstakes, this mysterious Seattle duo (Palaceer Lazaro & Tendai “Baba” Maraire) is ahead of the game with MF Doom fallen off, breast-beating Death Grips gone and producer Madlib too prolific for his own good. Though they’re now two albums deep into their output, they’ve already made a strong impact with their early self-released EP’s (a self-titled one and Of Light, both highly recommended) and their presence on a brand name indie rock label. Their less-is-more celestial ‘tude continues on Lese Majesty though in a much more minimal vein than Black Up, their 2011 debut album.