Monday, August 4, 2014

album review: 'lese majesty' by shabazz palaces

Let's talk a little about Sub Pop. Most prominently known for jumpstarting the grunge movement thanks to signing Soundgarden and Nirvana, they've also signed Sonic Youth, The Postal Service, Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Sleater-Kinney, The Shins, and all manner of indie rock bands that have earned considerable critical acclaim over the past few years. In other words, like Top Dawg Entertainment, they're a label that critics tend to keep an eye on.

But over the past few years, Sub Pop has started doing something a little unusual - signing hip-hop groups, mostly on the experimental, noisy, abrasive side of the genre. One of these groups I've talked about before, Clipping, who dropped one of my favourite hip-hop records of this year in terms of its noisy yet very accessible sound and thought-provoking lyrics. The other group, however, I have a slightly more complicated relationship with, and it's also an act I have a very hard time making heads or tails of every time I listen to their records.

Yep, I'm talking about Shabazz Palaces, who first burst onto the scene with a pair of critically acclaimed EPs before dropping the absolutely fascinating record Black Up, an album I think I appreciate a lot more than I like. The album is layered, excellently produced, and features some thought-provoking and intelligent lyrics and themes about a different paradigm in which to approach rap music. At the same time, I couldn't really call myself a fan of the record: while I loved the jazz-fusion with noisy, off-kilter rhythms and psychedelia across the album, MC Ishmael Butler aka Palaceer Lazaro didn't really impress me with his flow or energy, and I found the free-association lyrics didn't always stick the landing as effectively as they could, no matter how much desperate extrapolation was pulled from RapGenius. 

So I was curious to take a look at their newest album, Lese Majesty, especially given that there's is little-to-no critical consensus on this record across the Internet. How did it turn out?

Well, after over a dozen listens, I think I've managed to come to a conclusion on this record, and the best way to describe it: Lese Majesty by Shabazz Palaces is like a broken jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are scattered and are barely linked together, but if you squint closely and fill in the gaps yourself, you can see a pretty impressive picture. And yet despite that, you can't help but feel that picture would come together a lot more effectively if the pieces were actually assembled. In other words, while Lese Majesty is a broken, incohesive record, there are enough fascinating moments on this album that make it worth recommending for me - but at the same time, I can't help but feel it could have been better. 

 Now before we start digging into the content, let's get said structural issues out of the way first, because even if you're listening to the record as a single musical piece - which I would recommend - it's extremely fragmented. Not only are the tracks broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, with the average song extending just under two and a half minutes, but the songs are also grouped together into suites that seem to suggest a loose thematic organization of sorts. This is inevitably been done in order to brush aside the fact that large chunks of the little tracks do not stand on their own, and really should not have been separated from the larger songs - because when you break them off into their own tracks, most become incredibly insubstantial and lacking in anything close to a developed musical idea. Which is a bit of a shame, because there's interesting instrumental elements that could have deserved to be fleshed out a little more completely on some of these fragments, and yet it doesn't happen.

This takes us directly to instrumentation and production, where arguably the biggest shift has taken place. The jazz, the industrial elements, these are mostly pushed aside in favour of spacey electronics and psychedelic haze - which honestly isn't a bad choice, as I like both of these shifts, but while the thick, expansive mix creates a potent hazy mood, there aren't a lot of melodic progressions that really grip me in the keyboards or blissed-out guitar riffs. There are a few moments, I do like: the off-kilter vocal samples eventually being supplanted by gleaming synth lines on 'They Came In Gold', the eerie fade-out of 'Noetic Noiromatics', the cosmic brittleness of 'The Ballad of Lt. Major Winnings', the punchy uptempo 'Mindglitch Keytar TM Theme', the interweaving, almost lo-fil synths of 'Motion Sickness', but outside of these, many of the individual songs begin to run together or feel swallowed up in their own mix, or like the guitars on 'Colluding Oligarchs' or the overloaded, drippy mix of 'New Black Wave', feature elements that are so dissonant they draw all the wrong sorts of attention.. And this especially becomes true of the vocal production, which probably wasn't the best choice when you have an MC so known for a slow, methodical, complex flow and vocabulary... and then you drown him in reverb and haze so that you can barely make his rhymes out. I get it's a part of the atmosphere and contributes to the overall alien feel of the album, but it does not help your album to obscure your biggest selling point.

So let's talk about those lyrics, shall we? Now I was tempted - like with most psychedelic records - to eventually point out that at some point, the lyrics you can make out will stop making sense, and Shabazz Palaces gun for that point in record time with free association lyrics and pop culture references that often feel completely out of place. The thing is, this album does start making sense when you look at the larger picture and the 'narrative' of this album. Like with many modern and experimental hip-hop records, it's an album exploring the current state of modern hip-hop and the soulless emptiness that inhabits its upper reaches. And this is where we get some of Shabazz Palaces' most interesting and fanciful wordplay, like on 'Dawn In Luxor' or 'They Came In Gold', going for a gothic cosmic blend of fascination with decadence and death with passing glances at Afrofuturist concepts. It reminds me less of Janelle Monae or The Roots and more of Warhammer 40k, particularly in the darker iconography. And just like that universe, the most gripping moments on this record are when real humanity is exposed. I don't love the song '#Cake', mostly thanks to the rhyme scheme, but I appreciate the attention it draws to the seductive allure of fame and simpler pleasures, and I also like 'Noetic Noirmatics' attempt at a simple love song even despite the harsh, imposing world seeking to strike such introspective moments down. And even though I think 'Colluding Oligarchs' is a song that does not work on a compositional basis and probably the worst on the album, the combination of it and 'Suspicion Of A Shape' in setting up an assimilated nightmare of how black culture can be ground down and stripped of its soul is pretty potent, and it sets up the one-two punch of the sixth suite, the break for freedom of 'Mindglitch Keytar TM Theme' and 'Motion Sickness'. Hell, 'Motion Sickness' is easily the best song on the record because it shows the consequences and inevitable doom for rappers at the end of their commercial success and it gives the drama real stakes...

...and then Shabazz Palaces whiffs that final hit on the last suite of the record. I'm not saying either song is bad, but they don't pay off the ending of the record nearly as powerfully or show anything beyond a hazy spiral into the unknown. This was their moment for a thesis statement, something to draw this confused mass of an album together, and it does not pay off. I'm reminded of - of all things - Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails, another album that went for a high concept and completely whiffed the ending. And looking back on the rest of the record, yeah there are moments and concepts and lyrics I do like, but they lack a grounding point, something to coalesce the album into that cosmic force. And what's worse is that it does highlight all of the moments of this record that lack interesting topics or force or reiterate the same points just with different descriptive language. 

So look, I don't hate this album or think it's bad, and with every listen I did like it more, but it still doesn't break away from the fundamental problem that it just simply does not come together, and a lot of the songs don't stand up on their own. Yeah, there are some great moments, but I don't think they're enough to hold the album together completely, although they are enough to get me to cautiously recommend this album and give it a 6/10. Folks, this is going to be one of those albums that'll divide people and provoke a lot of discussion, so make sure to check it out. Just good luck figuring it out - this is not an easy record to crack.

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