Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty review – spectacular, way-out hip-hop

Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire's music seems totally without precedent, and even if sometimes it's just too weird to enjoy, more often it's genuinely thrilling

Hip-hop is not a genre much given to second acts. For all the respect afforded the old school and talk of a clearly defined "golden age", there's no real rap equivalent of rock's Rick Rubin-helmed comeback album; and the recent veneration of the late-80s and early-90s "boom bap" sound has not led to a renaissance in the careers of its original practitioners. A middle-aged rapper producing the most acclaimed and cutting-edge music of their career 20 years after their debut seems an improbable notion, which would make Ishmael Butler a pretty extraordinary figure, even if his latest album wasn't a collection of 18 tracks grouped into seven "astral suites of recorded happenings" called things like Murkings on the Oxblood Stairway, wrapped in an embossed, faux-sharkskin sleeve, which furthermore received its world premiere – complete with accompanying light show – at Seattle's Pacific Science Centre Laser Dome.

Notice is thus served that the album's contents are unlikely to bear much resemblance to the pop-rap party bangers of Pitbull, but Butler didn't always work in such an experimental field. He first emerged in 1993 as Butterfly, one-third of New York's Digable Planets. They had a gold-selling debut album, Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space), but still seemed like a trio faintly out of time. Reachin' was a great album, but the trio's cutesy names, jazz samples and lyrical references to Marx, Jimi Hendrix and incense jarred with hip-hop's increasingly dark and angry tone: it was the year of Doggystyle, Enter the Wu-Tang and Cypress Hill's Black Sunday.

Twenty years on, however, Butler – or Palaceer Lazaro as he now prefers to be known – can reasonably claim to be in better artistic shape than almost any of his peers. Lese Majesty, his second album as one half of Shabazz Palaces, has found itself lauded in some quarters as "the future of hip-hop" – not a phrase that anyone was in a rush to append to Snoop Dogg's pop-reggae inspired Reincarnated, or indeed the goings-on at Cypress Hill's Smokeout festival and Medical Marijuana Expo.

Lese Majesty's predecessor, 2011's Black Up, was an album noted for its denseness and complexity. Reviewers struggled to find anything else even on rap's outer fringes to liken it to. If you wanted a comparison from the rock world, you might suggest that Butler and Tendai "Baba" Maraire's work has a similar relationship to hip-hop as Captain Beefheart's late-60s ouevre did to the blues: it takes a heavily codified genre and warps it so dramatically that the result bears almost no resemblance to its musical roots. To extend the Beefheart metaphor further, you could claim that Lese Majesty is to Black Up what 1969's Trout Mask Replica was to its predecessors, the point where the music snips any last slender ties to commerciality and ventures out into the unknown. Breakbeats are chopped up until they frequently lurch from one deeply unfunky time signature to another. Virtually none of the tracks have anything you would describe as a standard structure. #CAKE features something you might vaguely consider a middle eight, sung by Catherine Harris-White of R&B duo THEEsatisfaction, but it sounds more like a chunk of an entirely different song by an entirely different artist abandoned in the centre of the track: there's literally no similarity of melody or tempo to what's going on around it. A hefty percentage of Butler's vocals are unintelligible. They're partially submerged beneath the music, or drenched in echo and electronic effects. On Forerunner Foray, two separate voices crash into each other, rendering both incomprehensible.

Even when you can make out what he's saying, the lyrics seem less concerned with any coherent meaning than the joy of playing with words and images. You can just about work out that Down 155th in the MCM Snorkel is a reflection on the early days of Digable Planets, but five contributors to the website Rap Genius have thus far attempted to unpick They Come in Gold with no real success. They've identified a reference to the ancient Syracusian practice of banishment known as petalism, and what may or may not be a reference to efilism, a branch of the antinatalist philosophical position advanced by Schopenhauer, but what any of that has to do with the lyrics' subsequent allusions to Moby-Dick seems pretty open to question. Frankly, anyone who can prove they know what the couplet "Pashmina, the jester's game of vice/ The cries incorporates slaying door and heist" is supposed to mean probably deserves a cash prize.

It's worth noting at this point that Lese Majesty is a noticeably less forbidding album in practice than it looks on paper. There are certainly moments when it feels like a bunch of weird words and noises thrown together to no real cumulative effect. The underwhelming sense of an artist being abstruse for the sake of it haunts the instrumental Suspicion of a Shape and MindGlitch Keytar TM Theme: you can admire the wilful screw-you-ness of Colluding Oligarchs – which features a guitar part that sounds like it's being played by a 12-year-old with their brow furrowed and tongue stuck out in concentration, over a rhythm that seesaws jarringly between 5/4 and 6/4 time – without necessarily wanting to listen to it more than once. But more often, Lese Majesty lures you into its skewed, wildly inventive world: the woozy beauty of opener Down in Luxor and Ishmael; Sonic MythMap for the Trip Back's bizarre combination of harsh, buzzing electronics and subaquatic atmospherics; the brilliant, disorientating moment where They Come in Gold suddenly shifts from one tempo to another, replacing a mass of spiky vocal snippets with a warped, warm, muted funk sample.

"If you come to see us, this is what you get," offers Butler, in an aside presumably aimed at anyone who wishes Shabazz Palaces would dial it down a bit. As you listen to Lese Majesty, you do find yourself wondering what you'll get next time. It's hard to see how Shabazz Palaces could venture any further out without the music losing all sense of coherence. As it is, not every experiment on Lese Majesty works, but when they do, the results are spectacular. And even when they don't, the lovely sense that you're listening to an album genuinely unlike any other is pretty overwhelming.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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