Reviewed by: Ari Roth
Ishmael Butler’s career has been forged on a series of oblique quantum leaps, eschewing linear progression in favor of a commitment to unexpected lateral movement across the fabric of space-time and human consciousness. His music is firmly in the the afrofuturist hip hop tradition (he was a member of Digable Planets in the early 90s), yet his work with Shabazz Palaces as Palaceer Lazaro, alongside Tendai Maraire/Fly Guy ‘Dai, sounds like little else, even within that vast realm. If 2011’s Black Up came close to critical and near-mainstream acceptance, even as it retained the duo’s core weirdness and arguably their best music yet, then of course they would take three years to return with Lese Majesty, a record that is more abstract and inscrutable than ever.
Sonically, Lese Majesty is overwhelmingly dense, full of shifting soundscapes and heavily processed, musique concréte-like timbres that rarely resemble traditional hip hop sounds. The album is divided into several “suites,” which provide a loose sonic and thematic structure, helping listeners to acclimate to each song and make sense of the record as a whole. There is a heavier emphasis on synthesizers and drum machines on the first half of the album, and when the drums do sound sampled, as on the brief “The Ballad Of Lt. Major Winnings” or “Colluding Oligarchs,” they are unsettlingly off-kilter, programmed in weird time signatures that resist an easy groove.
On the other end of the spectrum, the superficially traditional 808 drum machine thump of “Down 155 In The MCM Snorkel” is offset by the sheer bass weight behind its kick drums and a droning, metallic scrape that hovers like a miasma above the track. Closer “Sonic Myth Map For The Trip Back” is drizzled with layers of buzzing synths, coming to a rest with the patter of digital raindrops. The majority of the songs on the album are short and fragmented, so varied that it’s often frustratingly hard to get a beat on the album’s “sound,” but this is also a strength, providing endless layers for the ears to sift through. The vocals sit uneasily in the mix throughout the album, and their repetitive, hypnotic cadences are often the only thing keeping the instrumentals tethered to Planet Earth.
Lyrically, as always, Shabazz Palaces are even harder to parse. Rarely literal or concrete, their words are both stream of consciousness and precise, reference-heavy and erudite without coming off as showy or self-indulgent. On first single “They Come In Gold,” the line “reverie, some legend futures past / revelry, instead for it renders hella fast” seems particularly apt for their dreamlike transmission of the ancient and the futuristic. The eternal is a blast. For Butler, black identity and the fantasy of outer space are inextricably linked, a tradition that goes as far back as Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic’s explorations of the outer reaches in the 60s and 70s. Hence, on “New Black Wave,” “more complex how my patterns map / Pluto queens and Saturn macks.” Near the end of second single “#CAKE,” Butler outlines the coordinates for a personal star map both international and intergalactic: “Gaza, Ramallah, Seattle, Neptune…” Although it is far too early to even begin unraveling the complex metanarrative that threads through these songs, it is clear that Lese Majesty will still offer riches and new secrets for years into the future.