When Shabazz Palaces released a pair of EPs in 2009, there wasn’t much else out there that sounded like them. By the time of 2011’s wonderful Black Up, it was clear that Ishmael Butler, the mastermind behind the project, had perfected their outré mix of experimental structures and nostalgic flourishes. Since then, he seems to have nixed the latter component—his latest (bandmate Tendai Maraire doesn’t appear on the album, though, as the press notes indicated, he is “still very much a part of the group.”) is a weird, thematically abstract push into the future, and has more in common with the earlier EPs than the comparatively lush Black Up. There’s nothing on Lese Majesty with the hot-and-cold immediacy of “Swerve… the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)”, or the slinky chill-out-lounge charisma of “Endeavors for Never…”, which featured THEESatisfaction’s Cat Satisfaction cooing such cosmic vagaries as “the calculations all point to a connection in space.” I’m betting only Butler knows exactly what that lyric meant, and Lese Majesty proves that he has no problem pursuing an open-ended (maybe even willfully obtuse) agenda.
Lese Majesty refers to a criminal act that can encompass anything from libeling a reigning monarch to farting at the wrong moment. Butler chose the title to represent “a sonic attack on the ‘me-mania’ that’s sweeping over our culture,” an iconoclastic attitude that’s reflected in the album’s arid, dystopian production and Butler’s measured, robotic rapping. Its tone has more than a little in common with the producer Actress’ burnt-out dystopian opus from earlier this year, Ghettoville.
“Colluding Oligarchs” is a paranoiac interlude that devolves into something thin and sinister, like a monster movie theme rattling inside a tin can. Even the stunting here is often couched in cryptic futuristic jargon: on “Suspicion of a Shape”, Butler levels a few burns at his musical contemporaries, one of them a declaration that “all you guys are quantized.”
Still, the album is just as interesting for the way Butler’s ego slips in unexpectedly as for its seemingly distant and ascetic stance. “…down 155th in the MCM Snorkel” name-drops luxury-brand piracy pioneer Dapper Dan, and on “Forerunner Foray”, Butler delivers the incredible line “Black stallions pull my chariot, my heart’s broken,” an image of such perfect sad-boy-fantasizing, it could have been pulled from a Kanye West video. Butler is a former member of the ’90s rap collective Digable Planets, and his occasionally herky-jerky delivery masks an artful sense of timing and a tendency towards layered, impressionistic writing. Contrary to what its title would suggest, Lese Majesty is more than half seduction—at times, Butler’s magnetic presence seems like the only consistent guide in this sneaky, zigzagging album.
But Lese Majesty’s very real (if sometimes perplexing) power derives from a certain harmony of opposites: just listen to “Ishmael”, which combines some of the album’s most boastful tough-talking with its sweetest production, an almost childlike tinker-toy fantasia of woozy synths and shuffling beats. “Mimicking gods,” Butler intones robotically in its first few seconds, a promise that what’s to come will be something tempting and untouchable.