(Sub Pop; 2014)
By Chet Betz | 25 August 2014
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.
There is space here. Lots of it. Do you like space? How would you rate it? If you could grade space on a curve, what else would that curve be other than your own trajectory through it? So it is with this new record from Shabazz Palaces. Your mileage may vary, and that will be while space-time warps around you and your thoughts become stars. And if that sounds like I’m trying to throw some effusive hyperbole at this thing, just know that all that special stuff isn’t really so special because basically Lese Majesty is also, simultaneously and just as completely, you plopped on a couch playing Halo. But “Forerunner Foray” is the all-time best Halo level.
2011’s Black Up was a striking full-length step onto the scene for Shabazz. Its linguistic ambition—breaking down rap at the seams, down to the ones and zeroes—was exceeded only by its aesthetic force, a bilious dark horizon bound up in a sphere and punctuated carefully with shafts of light, an atmospheric orb of swag. It was a concentrated dimension where synthesizers and mbira and loops of children’s voices could coexist in perfect nightmare harmony, and that could be titled “An echo of the hosts that process infinitum,” and you actually totally dug that it was called that and thought about everything that that title might mean. Conversely, Lese Majesty sounds a lot like the last time I got laughing gas at the dentist. And there’s a track called “…down 155th in the MCM Snorkel.” But the keyboard tones are dope!
If your tastes align with mine at all, the opening trio of songs on Lese Majesty might just convince you that you’re listening to your new favorite record. “Dawn in Luxor” is a pulpy synth stomp on some post-Utopia’s beach; Shabazz frontman Ishmael Butler raps coolly, like he’s got an alien cocktail’s umbrella bobbing in his teeth, metronoming his syllables. A seamless segue into the aforementioned “Forerunner Foray” shows the album’s suite conceit in full effect, “Foray” taking the rhythmic bones of “Luxor” and recasting it as an incandescent jam and a half. All day, this song…all the live long day. Celestial trills, secret guitar licks, seismic bass, Butler’s flow limning it all with the same primordial-advanced technique that made Black Up so undeniable. Single “They Come in Gold” finds a new motif to morph and does so with transient aplomb; aptly, this suite’s named “The Phasing Shift.” These are tracks of rap that burn and glow.
But if Shabazz control the transience sharply on this opening salvo, the transience takes over on the rest of the record. Is that a bad thing? Really, I’m asking.
Lese Majesty hurtles off into the stratosphere and beyond, indulging vignettes, rampant genre experimentation (“Mind Glitch Keytar Theme” sounds inspired by Janelle Monae, the queen of “inspired by”), and a track where half the lyrics are Butler stating “I’m having my cake and I’m eating cake” (yes, it’s “#CAKE”) or listing off a seemingly random assortment of locales for the big, rave-y finish. And it all seems very, very intentional. “Ishmael” is an amazing Sophtware Slump (2000) of a track that starts off incredible and then almost immediately starts deconstructing itself. Lack of progression other than a track quickly ending so the next one can begin, or active regression, or progressions that are just plain weird…these are pretty much the proud norm of Lese Majesty. It’s not quite Anticon but it’s accepted Anticon’s friend request and wonky algorithms have got Anticon plastering its news feed. This is the best, blackest Anticon record that Anticon hasn’t put out.
And therein is part of the “problem” that I think maybe, possibly, I might have with this record. Clay Purdom posits that Lese Majesty is the most Shabazz Palaces-y record from Shabazz Palaces yet. But there was something about the vicious focus of Black Up that made it more singular to me. In the over-arching structural drift, the abridged run-times, and the pastiche of Lese Majesty I hear something that sounds, yes, 100% like Shabazz Palaces…but also kind of like how Monae and Flying Lotus started chasing that astral kitchen sink or that hip-hop bifurcation, giving us our “hips” and our “hops” in various orders and ratios and with other main ingredients added, and now Shabazz are following suit along with some of their other West Coast peers. Lese Majesty is all over the map, and the fact that it’s a stellar cartographer’s map makes that kind of exciting and fresh, and even these little individual tracks that feel unceremoniously wedged into the album’s gaps breathe like mini-epiphanies (my God, “Suspicion of a Shape”), but…
And that, in essence, is my conclusion. With Lese Majesty, man, I like it a lot, and yet I feel the “but” and its ellipsis but nothing of substance to be said after it; and I feel like that is exactly what Shabazz Palaces want. They want the conscious thought process, the self-aware dissection of information, to come in contact with their art on this album like matter with anti-matter. Here there is a canceling out. It’s a fun and somewhat liberating thing to listen to, a horribly frustrating thing to try writing about. Lese Majesty is pretty much just an entrancing aesthetic, an echoing esotericism, wherein Butler’s semantics are rendered equal parts serious and silly. If Black Up was all resounding statement, though that statement might have been obscure, Lese Majesty is question marks forming an infinity symbol. If I could give it a score, it would be two pictures of the same cake with a “but” between them like a decimal point. I’m sure other reviews have informed you that “lese majesty” means an offense against sovereignty, and what is sovereign in art or in ourselves other than the mind? On Lese Majesty Shabazz Palaces allow their ample intellect to eat itself. And when it’s done: space. Now that’s what I call a final frontier.