From the very beginning, local hiphop act Shabazz Palaces have been on the cryptic tip. The raps, production, cover art, videos, and performances at galleries and live-music venues present and elaborate on aspects of a culture that the world can barely understand—a culture that, long ago, seems to have broken from the highest civilizations of North, West, and East Africa and developed in isolation. The culture can only be partially understood by us. Sometimes we get a section of a story that's weaved from Palaces' multiple histories, other times we see some of the life of a street in a city that appears to be everywhere and nowhere, and other times there are visions of a future that's weirdly Earthless. This is indeed how one feels when listening to the new album Lese Majesty. The music, which was recorded in a new and cavernous studio at the Old Rainier Brewery, is not so much a mysterious transmission from some unknown point in deep space, but more like echoes from the future ghost of our planet. Earth used to be here, where the music is, but now it's gone. Planets can become extinct, but raps can live on, disembodied and numinous.
Who Owns Lese Majesty?
Shabazz Palaces are really not a crew in the traditional hiphop sense, but more a conspiracy among three musicians: Ishmael Butler, Tendai Maraire, and Erik Blood. And there seems to be no break between how these conspirators dream and what appears on their new album. They are not alienated from this work. There is no, to play with a line in "Forerunner Foray," compliance with the "master's science." What this means is that Shabazz Palaces actually own their music. And is this not the first question one must ask when listening to a new hiphop album? Who actually owns the music? Is it the musician? Is he/she making music for himself/herself or someone else? Often when he/she is making music that's not his/hers, it is bad. And often when he/she is, it's not an album that gets much attention. But I'm a Marxist. Why do I think the ownership question of the music is so important? Aren't Marxists all about denouncing private property? Why is it a good thing that Shabazz Palaces are not alienated from their third and arguably best work? The answer will not be found in me as a Marxist, but in me as a b-boy. And what did the rapper T La Rock teach all b-boys and b-girls in 1984 on Def Jam's first record? That only musicians who own their music can tell party people: "It's yours." Shabazz Palaces can say this and really mean it. Lese Majesty is yours.
If you listen to Shabazz Palaces' first two EPs, Eagles Soar, Oil Flows and The Seven New (2009), then to Black Up (2011), then to Lese Majesty, you notice the rapper Ishmael Butler (aka Palaceer Lazaro) receding more and more from the initial position of defined pronunciation. In the first two EPs, he is complicated and often says things that border on the mystical, but for the most part the words in his raps are clear and recognizable. In Black Up, he is still mostly understandable, but he also sounds as if he has taken a step back from the mic and into the growing noise of the music (Black Up is far more cacophonic than the first two EPs). By the time you get to Lese Majesty, Lazaro's words drift in and out of the Venusian mists, the cassette hisses, the computer cackles, the satellite crackles, the ghostly echoes of long-dead Earth. This rapper is not making an effort to be understood or to make beats that simply stand as the background to what he has to say. By doing this, Lazaro is rejecting about 40 years of rap history.
Recall for a moment the end of Wild Style, a very early hiphop movie. Recall how the graffiti artist points out to another graffiti artist that they are not the stars of hiphop. Who is? The rapper is the one. Now, that was back in 1982, when practically all rappers were in the ghetto—today, they own professional basketball teams or companies that manufacture high-end consumer products. These are the rewards of being heard as a rapper. People will pay big bucks to hear clever (and often not-so-clever) rhymes about your problems, your hos, and your life in the clubs. Blending with the background and becoming a part of the music is a really risky business. It could harm or permanently damage your career and ambitions. Also, a good rhyme that took hours to compose might get lost in the confusion of music. Why would you do such a thing? Why displace and disperse your ego? What do you gain? We can be sure of this: The answers to these questions could never be understood or appreciated by someone who doesn't own his/her hiphop.
The Drops of Water
The last track on Lese Majesty, "Sonic Myth Map for the Trip Back," might be the most beautiful thing that has entered creation this year. It is a part of Suite 7: "Murkings on the Oxblood Starway" (the album is broken up into suites with titles, the first and possibly the best one being "The Phasing Shift"). It opens with the breath of a jaded life and the crisscrossing zaps of lasers. When beat and bubbly bass kick in, the rapper, who is more of a hologram than a human, says something about this being his sound, and how he or someone he knows (it's hard to figure out) is playing a playa from year to year. After he says the word "drifts," the raps drift into music like a phantom into a vacuum and never really return. The track ends with drops of water.
What Does Lese Majesty Mean in French?
According to Wikipedia, lèse-majesté is "the crime of violating majesty... an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state. This behavior was first classified as a criminal offence against the dignity of the Roman Republic of Ancient Rome." Despite all of the good and bad robots, the glittering galactic visions, the ghostly Earthlessness, the raps that drift in and out of the cacophony, the title of this album reminds us that Shabazz Palaces never lose sight of the brightest star in their sky. That star is the political, and it is in the black constellation.