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. For other artists, such extravagance might be dismissed as onanistic navel gazing, but Shabazz Palaces are not after pretention: the suites and their verbose names serve to highlight the twisted, contorted nether regions of the world that Lese Majesty explores in its 45-minute running time. The larger-than-life imagery is a prime example of neo soul grandiosity sans aggrandisement, much in the way of Erykah Badu and The Roots.
The long versus short track lengths (seven songs are less than two minutes) create a unique framework and visualization for the album that helps the story of this crazy existence come together. It’s very similar to how J Dilla and even Wire created songs that were just long enough to detail their message without needlessly repeating motifs, but without constraining themselves to serving any form. Shabazz Palaces are good at saying exactly what they want to say no more than necessary. Outside the realm of Lese Majesty’s narrative, this aspect simply makes it easier to listen to the music. Sometimes an 11-minute suite is what the mind wants; other times, two minutes of beatmaking is all that’s necessary, and Shabazz Palaces’ adeptness at writing magnificent epics of songwriting alongside bite-sized portions is absolutely spot on in knowing how to make music for the moment’s need.
Butler and Maraire’s actual compositions lie in some schizophrenic, mentally wrung-out plane that’s inhabited by few other groups. #CAKE is an absolutely bizarre song with multiple movements featuring call-outs to different cities and ‘burbs, and, of course, cake, but it works. The follow-up track Colluding Oligarchs is a deadly serious, melodically empty track that ruminates on the dangers of big-man-on-top nepotism, but also how factions can appear between any groups of people – just think of workplace cliques.
It is completely possible to listen to Lese Majesty several times without picking up any of Shabazz Palaces’ lines; this is an album where the voice is as much an instrument as it is an expositional device. Each word is reverbed, double-tracked, or otherwise affected. When listened to carefully, one will note that lyrics are usually profane, but they’re not endangering; each song is crafted straight up to the edge, but without diving into oblivion.
Butler’s jazzy, experimental past in Digable Planets pops up a bit on longer tracks such as Motion Sickness, which has thematic and melodic similarities to Kendrick Lamar’s Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst in its slick but heart-hitting production. There’s no mainstream hip-hop flow here: raps start and stop, rhyme and don’t rhyme, spit expletives and remain astonishingly tight-lipped as Butler and Maraire channel the stories of those streets living and dead. Some of the skittering deliveries bring to mind Snoop Dogg’s noughties output. Beats can be bombastic: check out the cleverly named Harem Aria for floor-shaking dub beats against Lil B New Age-ism.
Something wonderful and terrible has happened in the world of Shabazz Palaces, and there’s no choice but to join the wild ride. It’s certainly “experimental,” but entirely without ridiculous connotations. The phrase Lese Majesty is exactly what you can expect: an album that is a facetious laugh at, an immersive soundscape of, and a beatific spit-in-the-face toward, traditions. To paraphrase The Fountainhead, Shabazz Palaces stand at the end of no tradition, but they may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.