Hip-hop/Afropunk duo Shabazz Palaces returned to the music scene this summer with their second album released under Sub Pop records, Lese Majesty. Artists Ishmael Butler (also known as Palaceer Lazaro) and Tendai Maraire, who reside in Seattle, have worked together as Palaces from 2009 and have yet to disappoint with their work. Butler, a former member of ’90s rap group Digable Planets, leads with vocals while Maraire handles the majority of the instrumentals. The duo’s new album serves as a follow-up to the 2011 release Black Up, and their sound has clearly evolved since then. Its title alludes to an old French law regarding the disrespect of a territory’s reigning power, and there can be no question that Shabazz Palaces see themselves as the reigning power of hip-hop, denouncing the imitators around them. In their track “…down 155th in the MCM Snorkel,” the duo goes as far as to say the cookie-cutter, thing-glorifying music plaguing the hip-hop industry makes them “tear up.” Other topics covered throughout the album include various forms of philosophy, race politics, romance and general musings about music, with their sound varying to fit the various moods.
The 18-track album is divided into seven suites, making the tracklist read more like an extensive aural journey than like a simple string of songs. Its track titles create the a similar effect (“Dawn in Luxor,” “Sonic MythMap for the Trip Back”). Palaces’ psychedelic and space-like feel is largely rooted in their tight production, which is just as rich as their purported image. One example lies in “Harem Aria,” in which a chopped synth reminiscent of jets of gold dust plays alongside reverberating vocals. Their pre-release single “#CAKE” (the title of which seems like a reference to Marie Antoinette, especially considering the album’s majestic name) is addictive and bounce-worthy – it even incorporates a bit of humor and fun as Butler’s voice echoes, turning the end of the line “I’m having my cake and I’m…” into what sounds like “nom nom nom.” Very little of the album feels contrived or mechanical, and Butler raps about this intentional effect multiple times throughout the work: “They manufactured moves… based on human movement”, “…mimicking gods.”
The group’s refusal to conform, however, may work against them more than it does for them at some points throughout the album. Some suites contain tracks lasting no longer than a minute and a half that seem to be transitional more than anything else – they fade into the background of the complete work and are easily forgotten. The sample between “Soundview” and “Ishmael,” while unconventional, is distracting at best and doesn’t do much to introduce the flowing verses Butler delivers immediately afterwards. That said, the album is generally very well crafted and serves as a listening experience unlike many others. Check it out and enjoy. (7/10)