A Hood Pedigree of Syndicates and Felonies: A Look at Shabazz Palaces' Lese Majesty

Rewind, Sub Pop 30, Local Music
Martin Douglas

With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. Today, in conjunction with our Sub Pop 30th anniversary celebration, we take a deeper look into Shabazz Palaces’ sophomore album, Lese Majesty, released four years ago today.

It’s a truth so self-evident it borders on overstatement: On a musical level, Shabazz Palaces are easily one of the most forward-thinking groups to come along in years. Their soundscapes are exploratory in ways that suggest spaceship travel to reach their elevated plane, siphoning genres including but not limited to rap, jazz, house, new-wave, and African folk music into their interstellar space.

In fact, when it comes to the critically-acclaimed duo, so much focus is on the music of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire (and for good reason), the street savvy of Butler’s lyrics often becomes an overlooked matter. This is not a new concept; just listen to the evocative parables and poetry that carries “free press and curl,” the opening track of the group’s full-length debut, Black Up. Even on the Digable Planets opus Blowout Comb, Butler is referencing cult-classic movie Black Caesar and rhyming on tracks with Jeru the Damaja.

Certain strains of rap are just a patchwork of reference, references for reference sake. Of course, this is what rap music was built on. Via sampling, via clever punchlines, via some rappers’ entire aesthetic. Innovation and imagination are how an artist stands out in any field, and certainly what sets Shabazz Palaces apart from their field, as they possess an impossible amount of both traits. So much about the group can be accurately categorized as otherworldly, but Butler’s lyrics — though often touching on the extraterrestrial and metaphysical — ground these songs in a very real sense of what is happening on the streets here on Earth. Lese Majesty, in particular, plays out like an Afrofuturist’s reimagining of a hood movie.

“Forerunner Foray” begins with a sample of “Hamhock’s Hall Was Big (And There Was a Lot to Dig!),” its lyrics recited by Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of the Last Poets (under his Lightnin' Rod alias). It reads like a laundry list of the type of folks you would run into on the regular if you grew up in the ghetto: “There were pickpockets and dope peddlers, murderers and thieves/Cardshark gamblers with aces up their sleeves/Bank robbers, burglars, boosters, and pimps.” While drones and lightly skittering synths crest throughout the background, Butler melds the makeup of the galaxy with racial disparity and describes the climate of the crack-cocaine epidemic. He chases money with his Adidas Rod Laver sneakers laced up, and asserts, “I was there, you’re a square/Please do not compare.”

Many themes course throughout the seven suites of Lese Majesty; the twisted self-mythology which drives modern rap music (“Colluding Oligarchs”), kicking bars to love interests (“Harem Aria,” “Noetic Noiromantics”), fly shit-talk (“New Black Wave”), and the appropriation and subsequent watering down of black culture. On opener “Dawn in Luxor,” Butler rhymes, “They couldn’t lull us so they synthesize our realness.” Even the seven suites are tied into the overall worldview of the album, as the symbolism is tied to Butler’s salad days in youth basketball and involvement in the Nation of Five-Percenters as a young man.

In spite of its cosmic accouterments, “Solemn Swears” is as old-school as it gets, with Butler rapping in a quintessentially late-80s cadence while his rhymes follow suit. “I’m very nice like Jerry Rice/I make ‘em dance, just at a glance,” capping off the stanza with something ready-made for kids on their way to the corner store for a candy run to chant: “I’m coming up like Donald Duck.” The floating ambience and fluid street poetry of “Motion Sickness” — with the images of “fiends lined up like the crows on the fence at Ezell’s” and life in the streets as “a high climb to the gallows” — ends with a cautious word of advice: “Life’s a bitch, treat her good or she’ll get you back.”

Buoyed by the boom of 808s and buzzing with synths that sound like bug zappers, “...down 155th in the MCM Snorkel” reads like a period piece, set in a New York so thick with tension and gold chains and concrete, you can practically smell the trash from nearby dumpsters. The images pass by as quickly as the proverbial New York Minute: Girlfriends from Baltimore with bamboo door-knocker earrings, drug dealers helping feed their communities, the popular slang of the day (biting, illing, 52s, fair ones), dudes on the block laced in Dapper Dan jumpsuits, Nissan Maximas with body kits. “The type of MC you’d be back then is ‘sucka,’” Butler smirks somewhere in the margins.

Throughout history, certain kings have become kings by inheritance. Others have staged coups, stealing kingdoms by ignoble force or deceit. (If you’ve watched more than twenty minutes of Game of Thrones in your lifetime, I’m sure you’re fully aware.) Royalty is often not what it’s cracked up to be, serving as a reminder of deeply flawed power structures.

The title Lese Majesty is derived from a term that translates to “offending royalty,” where the popular stance on the theme surrounding the album suggests Butler is the king who is offended by suckers (“And your music make us real niggas tear up,” he says on “...down 155th”). But an alternate theory lies in the album’s lyrics: There exist a great deal of rappers who fancy themselves kings — a generation of false idols and emperors wearing what they perceive to be new clothes — and Butler, simply a man who grew up in the streets among the paupers, is criticizing their (mostly imagined) station in society.

Of course, the act of offending royalty is considered an act of both treason and even sacrilege in many bygone monarchies. In the context of Butler being the entity offending these supposed royals, Lese Majesty takes the aura of a revolutionary act, a measure of defiance against not just the rulers, but ruling ideals. And honestly, what’s more hood than that?

Lese Majesty (#SP1044) is available via Sub Pop Records. Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire will be representing the Black Constellation collective alongside Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, OCnotes, Porter Ray, and Stasia Irons on Thursday, August 2nd as part of the Sub Pop 30: Turntable Sessions series, FREE and All Ages. More info here.

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