So the chrome tire screech every time we hit,
we converse in ancient languages.
If you come to see us this is what you get:
specialness, equipped for the long trip
Seattle: Rain pours on a middle-aged man, gray goatee, wearing a black velvet Nehru jacket with gold stitching on the lapel. Utter darkness surrounds him—still he dons Cazal 8010’s with lenses vampire dark. His head nods to the music coming from his headphones, audible from over one hundred yards away despite the rain, as he enters Subpop’s headquarters. Ishmael makes the long walk, past the posters of Nirvana’s Bleach, Afghan Whigs’ Congregation, The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World, and The Vaselines’ Way of the Vaselines. There is a history here, but the man we’re watching seems disinterested. He is sauntering towards the poster of a Subpop rarity, a hip-hop record, on the wall—placed conveniently between a coffee machine and an MPC500—an enigmatic black with the lettering SP, gold/black, nothing else.
There are no on-lookers. He doesn’t bother to look around. How could anyone be here? His time is infinite and his time is nothing. Here he is a god. Ishmael grabs a gold mug and fills the cup. He hits three deeply distorted kicks on the MPC and one max-decayed snare; with that the poster folds down to reveal a primitive hole in the wall. Following him downwards, an abyss, darkness, emptiness, but Ishmael walks with confidence—his gait unaffected. It’s as if he can see in the dark, or as if he’s taken this path before. He is listening to Cherrywine at a deafening volume. Studying. He reaches a mezzanine overlooking the atrium of a dimly lit palace. His expressionless face moves: a nod. Not to signify his acceptance of the palace’s existence; no, the palace has always been there, but it’s decaying, it must be rebuilt—all of the necessary structures are there. They’ve been there: preserved in the ancient underground ruins of Subpop’s inaccessible headquarters. They simply need to be rebuilt. Baba, the builder, the re-imagineer, is in the far corner, by the oil painted mural of Blowout Comb, recording the vibrations of Ishamel’s footsteps as he walks towards him. He is slightly paranoid. The NSA has been trying to gain access to his sample library for the last twelve years. He is a subversive revolutionary. He doesn’t know it but he is essentially Jon Connor—the future of hip-hop depends on him. Ishmael, dead black Cazals lenses, will play the Terminator.
“Three years,” Ishamel says. Baba needn’t respond. He beckons Ishamel and they exit into a room that resembles a futuristic prison cell. Baba reaches for a red button —the only thing in the room that isn’t black velvet—and turns back to Ishmael, question and doubt lingering in his finger as it hangs over the button, “Again?” Ishmael nods. The door slams shut. Welcome to Shabazz Palaces.
Lèse Majesty is akin, in many ways, with Shabazz Palaces’ previous releases: Black Up, Light Up, and their self-titled EP, but it feels different. First and foremost: it’s their most cohesive record to date—both lyrically and sonically; it’s four suites snake into each other with Ishmael’s voice sinking into and rising out of Baba’s futuristic, but still entirely analog, instrumentals. At other times Ishmael is at the forefront, masterfully rhyming over beats that are disjointed, off-kilter, and at times lacking any sign of syncopation altogether. In terms of lyrical content the album is in the same vein as the highly perceptive and critical Black Up—the record’s title in itself suggests that the duo set out on this project to insult the monarchy (of hip-hop, we must assume)—to throw stones at a crown that has become complacent and stagnant, but where Black Up was, for the most part, an all-out polemic, this record attacks with satire and parody; see for example: “#CAKE” or “Solemn Swears” the latter is an intro to the album’s second suite and would not be out of place on a Lil B mixtape. It is also one of my favorite songs on the album because it contains this gem: “I’m coming up like Donald Duck.” But the record isn’t all fun and games (even if those games serve a distinct purpose): “...down 155th in the MCM Snorkel” is a critique of the violent culture that rap music helps to perpetuate that’s in the same vein as OutKast’s classic jam “Spottieottiedopealicious.” Ultimately this is, in my humble opinion, the best release so far by the Seattle galactic rappers; now that I’ve completed my critical criteria I’d like to get into all the nerdy reasons why I think this record, along with clppng.’s fantastic self-titled album, is up there with the best music (not rap music, music music) to come out this year.
The “hits” on this record are not really hits in the way that say “Magna Carta Holy Grail” was a hit off a Jay-Z record. Due to radio limitations we can’t play an entire suite off Lèse Majesty, which is unfortunate, but even a whole suite wouldn’t encompass a hit. The record is made to be experienced as a whole. I would suggest listening to a mix of Migos, Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, and other top-40 hip-hop artists who aren’t Kanye West (not that I have any problem with these artists) for an hour before you begin this record: the contrast will strike you. The choruses on Lèse are limited and oftentimes out of place, at least by conventional hip-hop standards—but you’ll find that within the record everything comes together perfectly. All the disharmony of a song like “Harem Aria” makes sense when it’s sandwiched between “Solemn Swears” and “Noetic Noiromantics.” How you make sense of it, however, is entirely up to you.
Despite what I just said the album does have stand-alone tracks. They are, in a sense, the thesis statements of each suite—none of them are clumped together (again, this is not like other rap records) and each one approaches the album’s overall mission (which according to Roland Barthes is really not all that important) in a different way. Take “Motion Sickness,” for example, one of my personal favorites and one of the final songs on the album: compared to the other “thesis songs” (did I just coin a term?) “Motion Sickness” is extremely laid-back, in terms of both BPM and instrumentation, but when it comes to lyricism and delivery it is, without a doubt, the most polished song on the album. On the other hand middle-suite standout “Ishamel” features a complex and ever-changing array of instrumentation, a drum break that refuses to stay in any single time, and highly-effected vocals; I’m not saying that Butler is not rapping well on this song, but the way he slides into the mix it’s almost as if it doesn’t matter—as if the words weren’t necessary to convey the message. Finally, the front end of the CD, which starts out with three tracks that all could have easily warranted their own suite attacks with a mixture of the two previous approaches, with different emphasis on each track: “Dawn and Luxor” closer to the complexity of tracks like “Ishamel”; “Forerunner Foray” calling to mind the pop and bang of “Hottabatch” off Light Up, especially with regards to the playful alliteration in the second (can you even call it a second?) verse: “Punk potion/ pimp pirate pushin’ plush prose in/ Curtains closin’/ You ain’t knowin’?/ He was just posin’”—that is ill; “They Come In Gold” introduces the listener to the chant-style raps that will be revisited again and again throughout the record, on songs like “Solemn Swears,” “#CAKE,” and “New Black Wave.”
All in all, there is a lot more to be said about this record. Even saying this much about a record so enigmatic seems like an accomplishment. Its interpretation will vary from person to person. The effectiveness of its suites, of its unusual tempo changes, of the vocals that sink and rise as the album progresses—all these things will hit people in different ways. So it’s silly for me to write something like: “This album is _____ and it’s about ______,” when I should really just suggest that you listen to it.