By Garrett Strickler
Artist: Shabazz Palaces
Album: Lese Majesty
Record Label: Sub PopRelease
Released: July 28, 2014
Producer and Kanye West collaborator Evian Christ recently said that when Kanye emails him with instructions they are roughly: “anything but a hip hop beat.” It’s a sentiment that has been expressed by artists and listeners alike throughout rap in recent years and is only becoming more widespread.
At a time like this, and for artists like Shabazz Palaces, living out on the periphery of the culture doesn’t come quite as easily. While 2014 would likely be the year that hip-hop culture decides to adopt a record that lies somewhere between ambient, noise and experimental, “Lese Majesty” is not likely to be it.
As a group, Shabazz is highly talented and capable of creating captivating as well as enjoyable music within the context of experimentation. As the album progresses though, it becomes clear that the group is far more concerned with creating sounds that are curious and unique rather than enjoyable.
In each case, where sonic boundaries have been pushed in hip hop and the commitment to experimentation has been matched with a certain commitment to lyrics or groove, “Lese Majesty” treats neither of these aspects as a priority.
On their 2011 release, “Black Up,” the group deconstructed and examined certain aspects of the genre that frontman Ishmael Butler helped create as a member of Digable Planets in the mid ’90s. The twists and turns on the album were dark, but not distorted, and dense passages were complimented with melodies and female vocal samples. “Lese Majesty,” however, is basically just an ambient album with occasional drums.
The title is likely a reference to the french idiom “Lèse-majesté,” which is known in legal jargon as an offense against the dignity of the state or sovereign body. The duo have always had rebellion in mind in some form or another, and as far as rebellion against genre goes, the record does have its share of gratifying moments. The first three tracks are beautifully atmospheric and keep a unique rhythm and pace, but ultimately the first quarter of the record has little to do with what the group is actually trying to accomplish with the record.
The frustration arises upon the realization that maybe there isn’t much content beyond the rebellion this time, and maybe the way they’ve gone about it isn’t quite as original as they thought. For instance, on the track “Solemn Swears,” which has a hypnotic and gorgeous pulsing synth backdrop for all of it’s 90 seconds, the lyrics read like a chorus from a Blue Flame-era Lil B track, featuring the lines: “I’m very nice like Jerry Rice,” “I’m comin’ up like Donald Duck.” Similarly, the centerpiece of the album, “#CAKE,” presents an examination of commercialism that comes not from the deconstructionist or lyrical perspective of “Black Up,” but closer to the ironic meditation that Das Racist pioneered in “Combination Pizza Hut Taco Bell.”
It’s worth noting that upon the release of “Lese Majesty” the group also issued a statement to compliment the album. The second paragraph begins, “Lese Majesty is not a launching pad for the group’s fan base increasing propaganda. It is a series of astral suites of recorded happenings, shared.”
The rest of the message is just for fun. This is what they’re trying to tell us: their version of hip hop has nothing to do with fans and nothing to do with money, everything to do with sharing. “Lese Majesty” gives plenty of happenings to unpack; sometimes they bring satisfaction and sometimes they don’t.