- Sub Pop
By Adam Depollo, Online Arts Editor
Published July 30, 2014
After the 1995 dissolution of the innovative alternative hip-hop group Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler, known as ‘Butterfly’ in the trio, largely disappeared from the music industry until his triumphant return as the leader of the Seattle-based outfit Shabazz Palaces in 2009. As a member of Digable Planets, Butler helped open Hip Hop up to a whole new realm of sonic possibilities by fusing jazz and rap into a style that would eventually give rise to a number of influential artists, ranging from J Dilla and Mos Def to Flying Lotus and even Kendrick Lamar.
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As leader of Shabazz Palaces, Butler once again took Hip Hop in an entirely new direction on the group’s masterful 2011 debut album Black Up, following a path paved with samples stretched to their breaking point, hauntingly minimalist rhythmic arrangements and echo-laden verses filled with stream-of-consciousness imagery and challenging aphorisms.
Shabazz Palaces’ latest release Lese Majesty — an anglicization of a French term referring to offense given to a royal — retains some of the elements that made Black Up so innovative, but is altogether a different animal.
The new LP opens its first suite, ‘The Phasing Shift,’ with a slow-building ambient drone on the track “Dawn in Luxor,” leading into an exposition of space-age metaphysics that would seem perfectly at home in a Sun Ra monologue: “The light hath names, just like the heavens and the stars / Reclaim us to further along the spaceways.” Snatches of cryptic imagery evoke ancient African kingdoms and drug-induced ecstasy within the same line. Lustrous melodies reminiscent of Indian ragas float over pounding bass drums and cavernous, droning synthesizers. The beat flows effortlessly into the next song, “Forerunner Foray,” and you’re carried inexorably along the album’s 18 tracks until you emerge, accompanied by the sound of dripping water, at the end of the closer “Sonic Myth Map For The Trip Back.”
While the production on Lese Majesty — provided by Catherine Harris White of THEESatisfaction, Erik Blood and Thadillac — is consistently stunning, listeners hoping for the sharp imagery and innovative rhyme schemes of Black Up will likely be disappointed by a number of individual tracks on this new release. Butler’s lyrics occasionally become incomprehensibly abstruse, as on “#CAKE.” His similes on “Solemn Swears” are largely nonsensical, and his vocals throughout the album are often accompanied by so much echo and reverb that they become unintelligible.
But this isn’t an album to be torn apart track by track; more than any other LP I’ve heard this year, Lese Majesty is a cohesive sonic unit that needs to be considered in its entirety to be fully appreciated.
Each of the album’s seven suites features repeated elements — like the airy, bittersweet chords on ‘Touch & Agree’ or the water droplets sprinkled throughout ‘Murkings on the Oxblood Stairway’ — that give each section its own unique character while flowing logically and organically into the next. A sense of brooding, throbbing darkness builds across the whole album as Butler combines hazy Old Testament imagery with futuristic axioms, making the whole project seem like the soundtrack to a space-age Sodom and Gomorrah.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of Lese Majesty, however, is its systematic subversion of the egocentrism of modern Hip Hop. In a recent interview with NPR, Butler described the album as a “sonic attack on the ‘me-mania’ that's sweeping over our culture of late,” and in that vein he consistently avoids references to himself. The only time he says “Ishmael” is in a literary allusion to “Moby Dick,” and, like that enigmatic narrator, Butler occasionally fades from the picture entirely. He deliberately makes his lyrics unintelligible by use of heavy reverb and delay while letting the occasional phrase slip through for the listener to interpret for him or herself.
Like Melville’s white whale, then, Lese Majesty is an open text that reflects the mania of its reader. It’s an opportunity to ponder the infinite, to look into the abyss and see what’s staring back. And, like Melville’s novel, Lese Majesty is a masterpiece ahead of its time. Just as he did as a member of Digable Planets, Butler and his collaborators have boldly entered uncharted waters in Hip Hop, both on a sonic and philosophical level, and there’s no one I’d rather have at the helm.