One of the most overused cliches in music is that an artist or an album doesn’t sound like anything else. From a journalist’s prospective, it’s a pretty lazy phrase to throw around that alludes to a lack of research and a reliance on hyperbole, not to mention in most cases it’s just downright inaccurate. Well, after struggling with it for a while and doing copious amounts of research, I’ve decided I’m okay with saying that Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty does not sound or feel like any other hip hop album out there. It may not even be a hip hop album. At times it feels more like an experimental electronic effort that uses the flows of MC Ishmael Butler as an additional instrument to compliment the other-worldly synths and beats of Palaces’ multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire.
The entire album is a complete anomaly in today’s hip hop landscape. “Weird” rap is supposed to be as hyper-aggresive, gaudy and in-your-face as possible these days—that charge being led by Atlanta stalwarts like Gucci Mane’s 1017 crew (Young Thug, Waka Flocka, Lex Luger and all) and the LA ratchet scene lining up behind the likes of YG, Ty Dolla Sign, Nipsey Hussle and DJ Mustard. Not only does Shabazz Palaces not sound like, or even seem to share any influences or musical components with, any of the artists listed above, they honestly don’t even sound like they’re from the same planet. Really though, they aren’t. They come from Seattle, a rap scene that has produced exactly one other prominent rap duo, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who probably sound less like Shabazz Palaces then anyone else in the entire hip hop genre. And, they are signed to Sub Pop, a label that made its name in the indie/alternaitve rock world, far far away from the influential hip hop collectives that continue to dominate the top of the rap world (TDE, A$AP Mob, MMG, GOOD and the like). On Lese Majesty, Shabazz Palaces takes ownership of this outsider status like nobody before them, and the result is an epic.
The LP has 18 songs, some as short as 39 seconds, broken up into seven suites. It truly hits its stride on the second and third ones, titled “Touch & Agree” and “Palace War Council Meeting” respectively. On Harem Aria, Butler repeats the line “I’m not messing with your mind” over and over again, but the almost bizarre arrangement of sounds and frequencies surrounding the lyrics make the phrase pretty much ironic. On #CAKE, the album’s lead single, the duo seems to be mocking strands of modern culture. It’ss the album’s most accessible track production-wise, but features Butler rapping the words “eating cake” an astonishing 33 times throughout the track’s four minute duration amongst other non-sensical and overly-simplistic phrases of a similar vein. Its jesting tone serves as the only indication on this album that Shabazz Palaces have even listened to any hip hop album released in the past decade, and it makes it abundantly clear what they think of the lot. Ishmael features the most successful middle ground between Shabazz’s experimental outsider ethos and a proper showcasing of Butler’s indisputable talent as a tricky-rhyming MC, incorporating his flows into a landscape of airy voices, female speaking parts and an insanely timed bass synth that takes you by surprise over and over again.
Lese Majesty is a seriously weird album, but it succeeds in calling the genre’s current established order to question and challenging what it means for something to be considered a hip hop record, all while remaining sonically pleasing enough to keep the listener engaged with the ambitious message that Shabazz Palaces is adamant at getting across.