Shabazz Palaces formed in 2009 with little promotion, but a lot of praise. Since Palaceer Lazaro (Ishmael Butler of “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” fame) and Tendai Maraire (son of Dumisani Maraire, the man who brought the Zimbabwean music and the mbira to North America) joined forces on their self-titled EP, the duo’s been heralded for their innovative, idiosyncratic, experimental hip hop, aptly described by their record label as “acknowledging that sophistication and the instinctual are not at odds.” Their debut album, Black Up, was lauded for its musicality alone, but it’d be hard to argue that their above-it-all apathy towards social media, sporadic affiliation with uber hip visual art collective Black Constellation, and opulent, Arabic, snake-toting aesthetic didn’t add to their appeal. Unsurprisingly, this summer’s sophomore release fostered fair anticipation.
Though compelling and interesting, Black Up it is not. Lese Majesty offers none of the lyricism of ‘Youlogy’ or ‘Swerve’, or the carefully engineered rhythmic change-ups of ‘Endeavors for Never’. It doesn’t flaunt its multi-instrumentalist talent to deliver shocking breaks within a song or even attempt to weave together beats across tracks. In fact, despite carefully arranging the album into seven thematic suites, beyond the album’s overarching intergalactic electronica vibe, many of the songs are so short and jarringly transitioned that by the time “Solemn Swears” opens the second suite, it feels more like you’re listening to a stew of the group’s musings than the unified conceptual piece of standalone opuses Black Up suggested their future work could be. All in all, it seems to be a less conscientious work than its predecessor.
Still, on each track Shabazz Palaces defends its place as one of the most unique groups around while—despite toning down the bass and replacing it with the sounds electronic, nebulae-evoking synthesizers—remaining decidedly hip hop. Shabazz Palaces is breaking ground now on what I imagine Kanye attempting in a year or so with their boundary-pushing combination of chill, palatable ambience and esoteric abstraction and even at their laziest I still like them. ‘They Come in Gold’ stands out as a critique of the rap industry’s egoism and braggadocio with impressive tongue twisters like its opening “Vanity/I love you for myself/Me and always you and always never no one else” or later “black-ephilic, petalistic, catastrophic hymns”. Also noteworthy are ‘Motion Sickness’, whose siren-like drone (mimicking the overwhelming feelings of hustling, bemoans the tireless struggle for success and security and ‘Colluding Oligarchs’, a dizzying panoply of made-up words and oblique astral references sprinkled over a catchy, exotic instrumental.
Lese Majesty gets its name from “lèse-majesté ”, the French term for an offence against the state. Although far from the aggressive radicalism the allusion implies, Shabazz Palaces’ second album is thoughtful and subversive enough to warrant a careful listen. Whether it incites you to challenge systems of oppression like the science fiction it borrows from is another question, but Lese Majesty will at least offer a refreshing cosmic interlude from your banal summer beach playlist and a glimpse of the future that hip hop may offer.