Review by Olivia Wedderburn
Many hip hop group splits of the 90’s left fans feeling despondent about the future of the genre and the space for it to evolve, desperate for reunions that didn’t seem to follow the dead behind the eyes in it for the money exports of recent (I’m looking at you Wu-Tang Clan). Split of New York trio Digable Planets in 1995 was no exception to this rule, with fans of the alternative hip hop styling left waiting 10 years before they came back with a compilation album and some tour dates. However nothing satiated the initial thirst bought by Digable Planets first album then when Butterfly (Ishmael Butler) of the group went on to form Shabazz Palaces.
Offering up what felt like it was missing from the genre, Shabazz Palaces experimental sound gained critical acclaim with their first release in 2009, a self-titled EP that while decidedly different from initial Digable Planets content, seemed to bring to the table the same level of quality that drove the early 90’s hip hop scene, through original and experimental approaches to the genre. This week their second record dropped, “Lese Majesty” on Sub Pop records, an eagerly anticipated release since their 2011 studio album “Black Up”.
Taking the name from the French equivalent to treason, an offense against the reigning sovereign or the state, Lese Majesty holds a light towards political dissent, but assumedly toward rap kingpins who are to fear the experimental nature of hip hop collectives such as Shabazz Palaces. The seven suite 18 track album has generated a lot of excitement since they released teaser “They Come In Gold” back in May, alongside a weird and wonderful statement of the nature of the album, that rang very true of the groups style and expression. They stated that “Lese Majesty is not a launching pad for the group’s fan base increasing propaganda. It is a series of astral suites of recorded happenings, shared. A dare to dive deep into Shabazz Palaces sounds, vibrations unfettered. A dope-hex thrown from the compartments that have artificially contained us all and hindered our sublime collusion”, suggesting a cosmic quality that has strung across every release, and enough to send critics and fans alike into a frenzy of what to expect next.
In short, this album is seriously dreamy, on first listen it sort of felt like I had transcended into a cloud like state of euphoria. I don’t think I was aware of how much time had passed as suite by suite I felt further and further immersed in Lese Majesty. Opening track of suite one, “Dawn In Luxor” is a surreal piece exploring themes of spirituality, the cosmic and African culture and heritage, from African kingdoms to slavery, all the while supported against the ever flowing nature of Shabazz Palaces instrumental loops, sliding each track into one another with stylised ease. The first suite is entitled “The Phasing Shift”, perhaps a homage to the Phases of waves, approaching the theory that two waves have different, but closely related meanings. The first suite approaches decidedly different aspects of African culture that have homogenous routes, much like that of the Phases. This sort of level of intelligence and symbolic undercurrent comes as no surprise from Shabazz Palaces. They are renowned for how clever their music is, but in an unpretentious way, and their albums are naturally smart approaches to music making as a craft. Lese Majesty is certainly not exception to the rule.
Lese Majesty’s opening with a wave suite seems fitting for the undulating nature of the album, calming, breaking and rolling like breaks on the beach, but its tidal nature fits nicely into the space like feel of it all, almost as though it is a science-fiction album set on another planetary realm. Voice distortion in areas of the album matching the distorted sections of musical interludes makes for a discombobulated listening experience. However, Lese Majesty catches you off guard at points, lulling you into a false sense of security as it gradually builds drum beats, areas getting heavier and almost strangers to the earlier lullaby suites. If anything this displays the sheer diversity of Shabazz Palaces musical palette, perhaps showing the world that despite its temporary hiatus, they still contain the talent that made them critically favoured in the first place.
The album is by no means something that will become a chart topper, or have single releases issued from it. It has the delectably weird notion behind it that makes it seemed reserved for album and nothing more, the whole thing to be listened through from start to finish. Some tracks seem to feel more independent, such as drum beat and catchy in a sense entirely different to the other tracks #CAKE, with the repetition of lyric “Eating Your Cake” likely to be rammed into my head for another fortnight, but as a whole the album feels tightly intertwined and has no place on your shuffle setting. It has been carefully produced, and although with an album that relies so heavily on technology to create the right sound it is easy to become over produced, it is not. Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire have cultivated and curated over the last 3 years to create something pretty poignant, but I guess when a release is so anticipated, the urge to deliver will ride over your creativity, and sometimes, such as in this case, with great results.
When Digable Planets broke up in 1995 and there were fans worried about the future of the genre, I wish they could have had the chance then to listen to Lese Majesty. This album firmly seals the future of futuristic hip hop, the boundary pushing approaches being produced slowly but surely. This album is a slice of hope added to the pie of the experimental right now. Those waiting for changes have begun to be given them more and more recently, and Lese Majesty is the most welcome addition to the future of music this year.