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. Call it planetarium rap.
And so, Lese Majesty, the follow-up to the 2011 debut, Black Up, is oddly surprising when Lazarro (aka Ishmael Butler, Butterfly of ’90s outfit Digable Planets) says something to remind you he’s from our galactic corridors. Even if he’s based in Seattle, home of the Super Bowl-defending Seahawks, it’s hard to imagine him plopping his ass on a couch on a weekend, rising to his feet only after a Russell Wilson touchdown throw. (Or whatever.) Yet, here he is on “Ishmael”, alluding to pigskin: “Every down is an audible.” If you had no knowledge of his prior work, the line would be a shocker — this obvious eccentric is familiar with something we enjoy? There’s a similar reaction when he mentions money clips or weed.
Given the general proximity of the word “audible,” the line doubles as a declaration of the creativity behind each passage here. Butler, after all, has been involved in record-making long enough that he knows production choices of all kinds are going to define his legacy. He was something of a star when he was with Digable Planets in the ’90s, doing jazz-rap more inventively — or at least more intricately — than A Tribe Called Quest. They had a gold-selling album, Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), and won a Grammy. But while Butler is a virtually unknowable social media absentee now, Lese Majesty still boasts charismatic, technical-yet-relaxed microphone chops. If not, he’d have a formless album without much worth repeating.
Still, if you put the album on shuffle, you might go a long time without hearing anything you can call a “verse.” As far as music that can’t be described exclusively as “ambient” (see the R&B-as-incense of How to Dress Well), Lese Majesty ranks high as a holistic experience. The production and the layering — from the future tribal drums to the misty bass plucks and the pulsing guest vocals of THEESatisfaction’s Catherine Harris-White — is what people are going to connect with right away. There are seven minute-and-a-half-or-less interludes across these 17 tracks, all divided into seven suites. Are you going to listen to “Suspicion of a Shape” on its own? Probably not, but it’s nice that it’s here, reinforcing the purpose of the alchemy.
On the other hand are the shifting “Forerunner Foray”, the loopy “They Come in Gold”, and the bass boom of “…down 155th in the MCM Snorkel” — all rap songs, or at least the group’s martian vision for what rap songs can be in 2014. Lazarro and Tendai are traditionalists in some ways, but they agree that rap is getting more and more exciting as it corresponds to the digital age; for instance, they’ve raved about the iconoclastic tendencies of Odd Future. As such, even these songs fearlessly trek a number of genres, some of them overlapping.
Shabazz Palaces are from a hip-hop scene without much of an identity (Seattle’s), and they seem to want to forge one in their own image. Lazarro has never been easy to understand on a lyrical level. With that being said, the hip-hop tenets here are what need exploring in order to gauge Shabazz’s legitimacy as a representative of the genre. They’re also repeat-worthy both for how Lazarro sounds and because he — to say the least — is a challenge to comprehend. Either way, you want to get lost.
Lazarro could still rap as Butterfly if he wanted; there’s a reason he raps under a different name now, and that’s because he sounds so much more (other)worldly. Much like MC Ride or even Aesop Rock, Lazarro thinks broadly, to the point that it can all sound like gibberish (“I’m very nice like Jerry Rice … I’m comin’ up like Donald Duck”). If you spend much time with the music, his intentions eventually rise to the surface, or so you think. The sarcastically hashtagged “#CAKE” ultimately seems to be a take on capitalism because of its goofy, idiomatic exterior: “I’m having my cake and I’m eating cake,” Lazarro repeats, like, 15 times. “They gon’ always slice my portion, bruh.” Who knows, though? Some of the lines on this album are seemingly about his Digable days, others self-image in the Internet age, but Butler is rarely explicit. In other words, my guesses might be totally wrong.
The very first word on the album is “focus.” Isolated, it’s either a noun or a verb. The main question Lese Majesty poses is whether or not hip-hop can be effective when head-moving beats and immediately grin-worthy lines are scarce. The genre was much more clear-cut circa Reachin’, yet the audience, enamored with this emerging form, was more patient with wordy MCs. It makes sense, then, that the arrival of underground rap’s first major wave, filled with dictionary divers and weirdos making their presence felt in a plethora of ways, was in full swing by the end of the decade. Today, there’s no question that trap rap’s rumble has taken over the mainstream, and street rap, probably for a longer period than even Lex Luger expected, did as well. But Butler and Maraire aren’t interested in familiarity; they want your mind instead. On “They Come in Gold”, Lazarro claims that “we converse in the ancient languages,” scheming like Bob Dylan when he said it would take listeners lifetimes to parse his work. Whether or not you’re willing to put in the time, Lese Majesty holds attention as soon as opener “Dawn in Luxor” kicks in. That’s plenty to like.
Essential Tracks: “Forerunner Foray”, “They Come in Gold”, and “#CAKE”