If you haven’t heard the newest Shabazz Palaces release yet, know this: Lese Majesty is as much a summer album as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, NY is a holiday film. It is a complete exploration of an impulse – the following through of an aesthetic that is allowed to organically morph over forty-five minutes. What it might lack in radio singles, it makes up for in deep and progressive artistry.
The album, broken up into seven “suites,” is a balanced showcase of wordsmith Ishmael Butler (Digable Planets) and producer Tendai Maraire. Both artists take risks throughout Lese Majesty with high yields – from Butler’s poetic subversion of hip hop lyricism to Maraire’s constantly evolving approach to instrumentation. While it is a more difficult listen than 2011’s Black Up, Lese Majesty proves that Shabazz Palaces isn’t interested in stasis.
“Dawn in Luxor” serves as our overture. It introduces us to a number of themes, notably the juxtaposition of African history against modern blackness and cultural accountability against personal authenticity. Right off the bat, Butler plays with the duality of language – keeping in line with the historical meaning of the album title (French for “treason against a sovereign power”), the track flirts with references to toppling government control and self exaltation. Yet, a literal translation of “lèse majesté” gives us “injured majesty,” a phrase that aptly describes the lens through which Ishmael examines himself and his people. References to slave trading and the rise (and institutionalized fall) of the Civil Rights movement spin down to a simple mantra that carries the listener through the rest of the album – “Glitter and gold, there’ll always be a difference.” Sure, this could just be heard as a boast on the heels of Butler’s exalting the production equipment in Maraire’s studio, but it is as much sage advice to the MCs who approach his throne as it is a battle cry against them.
Many of Butler’s disses on Lese Majesty are similarly double-sided, as lines about the “lesser rapper musketeer [who’s] been lying to himself” have an undertone of hope that hip hop artists will no longer be satisfied with the record deal and the commercial success. That the pawn will recognize his potential and to change direction on the board, going after the throat of those who stand to profit from his position.
From there, we dive into the rest of the ‘Phasing Shift’ suite. “Forerunner Foray” and “They Come in Gold” are the last straightforward tracks on Lese Majesty for a while. Butler’s flow on these two is on point as he explores the ebb and flow between modern street culture and African history. His language has a harder edge, repurposing Moby Dick’s metaphor of internal struggle to explore American blackness. Butler spends the first suite in conflict, weighing the authenticity of framing himself as a banger versus framing himself as an heir of a noble history (Butler is also Muslim, which further informs his cultural struggle).
Before the conversation can get too heavy, Lese Majesty takes a detour into the ‘Touch & Agree’ suite, which finds an opportunity to highlight Maraire’s ever-expanding survey of beatmaking’s bounds. These four tracks (all under two minutes each) are deep and pounding, with gentle cinematic moments peppered in. Butler shifts his focus from grappling with political and cultural issues to his sexual and romantic relationships. Lines like “I love you so much / Yeah, I’m just like you / I never thought that I would find else somebody / Who never thought there was fine someone like me / I thought that maybe I felt all there is to be” flow warmly.
The ‘Palace War Council Meeting’ suite features the album’s most “Swerve”-esque track, “Ishmael.” It is a dreamy dissection of Butler’s view of humankind (or maybe just lesser rappers), with a religious bend. In it, he details a fall from grace, lamenting our proclivity for “mimicking gods” and our blind faith in leaders who “never tell us what’s behind the veil.” His wordplay is damn near Shakespearean: “Sinners still / In our sons instill / Sinister minds / Sinister minds.” The next few tracks, “…down 155th in the MCM Snorkel” and “#CAKE” brings back those double-edged disses, as Butler frames his disgust of pursuing quick fame over quality by calling out other MC’s shortcomings and then beating them at their own game (“I’m having my cake and I’m eating cake” is Based God-level funny).
Suites five and six immerse the listener in the futuristic sounds hinted at in the album’s earlier movements. Maraire’s production borders on nightmarish and Butler’s words become another instrument in the mix. Heavy effects and processed synth loops reign supreme until “Motion Sickness,” which brings us into a more traditional aural landscape and hits powerfully after the strange three-track assault. The album closes by folding the ideas of the first suite into the newfound aesthetic, ending with the palate cleansing “Sonic MythMap for the Trip Back,” a subtle recognition of the album’s sharp left turns.
When Lese Majesty is experienced with an eye towards current events, the listener (regardless of their own race) is pushed to question what it means to be black in post-Trayvon Martin America. As I write this, protests have broken out in Missouri in reaction to the murder of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen who was shot multiple times by local police in broad daylight. Very few firm details have been released that explain the officer’s actions, but it’s clear that Michael Brown was not a lethal threat, just as Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner were not lethal threats to their aggressors. What’s fucked up is that we knew, without even turning on Fox News, that conservative pundits will continue to criticize everything from the way these victims dressed, to the music they listened to, to the way they spoke as being the “reasons” why they were killed. Yet, music, fashion and language are all the pillars of a culture. So what are black Americans expected to walk away with from these tragedies? That their culture is safe enough to be appropriated but becomes threatening when authentically owned? Though there are an infinite number of ways to “be” black (as there is no single depiction of a human being that accurately captures their wonderful complexity), the current climate has made the simple act of putting on a hoodie or reacting within our lawful rights a life-or-death situation for people of color. Though never blatantly discussed in Lese Majesty, I couldn’t help but hear Butler’s words as an impassioned reaction to the bullshit that these communities have had to swallow over the last two years. Which only makes this futuristic album even more timely.