During a historic moment in the mid-‘90s when progressive, alternative hip-hop reached a commercial and critical peak, three New York rappers named Ladybug, Doodlebug, and Butterfly made two weird, smooth, jazz-inflected albums, 1993’s Reachin (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and 1994’s Blowout Comb, under the name Digable Planets. The debut spawned a pretty big hit, the Billboard Top 40-certified “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” and Blowout Comb was just as acclaimed as its predecessor, but the group split in 1995. They remained silent until 2003, when Ishmael Butler, previously known as Butterfly, rechristened himself CherryWine and produced the modest, danceable Bright Black before promptly disappearing for another six years. Now he calls himself Palaceer Lazaro, collaborates with polyinstrumentalist Tendai Maraire, and leads a collective called Shabazz Palaces based in Seattle. In 2009 the group gave the world the Shabazz Palaces and Of Light EPs, which would have made a dandy album in themselves if played back to back, and proceeded to release the full-length Black Up on the typically rock-oriented Sub Pop label in 2011. Now they have another album out, Lese Majesty, released this July. Butler has become an established critical darling again, and he deserves it. His new music is at least as original as anything the Planets ever put their names on.
If Shabazz Palaces are the future of rap, as their label claims, then rap is bound for obscurantist whimsy — inventive and engaging though their records are, these proud bohemians have reached such a rarefied level of willful avant-garde perversity that it can take forever to hear how their musical elements fit together. Their beats are abrasively garbled, and they have much less interest in writing fully-formed songs than in scrambling fragments of such. Their rhythms stray rather far from traditional hip-hop ideals of flow, too. Yet their albums do capture a certain sweeping, herky-jerky kind of flow, and their fragments are usually contained within a larger musical shape, functioning not as intelligible expression but as a magnificent smorgasbord of cool noises and bizarre sound effects that always manage to jolt and tickle your brain. Black Up consists of ten relatively longer multipartite compositions, as they must be called; both gradual and sudden changes in hook and also sometimes tempo erupt at unexpected intervals, which adds to the fun.
This is an album whose great virtue is cramming in as many disparate and wonderful sonic details as possible into the tightest space. It all comes together in a flash, and there’s always something amusing to hear, wailing synthesizers or saxophone snippets or squiggly squealing, scrapes of bass or crunches of keyboard or passionate quietstorm moaning, plucked mbiras or hissing industrial static or wafts of woodwind, a whole host of percussion effects from breakbeat to jungle to shrill to relaxed to African. Lese Majesty includes as wide if not a wider range of crazy animal noises, but the structure is completely different. Only six of eighteen tracks venture past the three-minute mark, and the rest are tiny, cryptic, often incomprehensible shards of sound, one leading into another leading into another. Since Black Up actually did divide its sundry parts into discrete songs in the end, once you acclimate yourself to its demented momentum and idiosyncratic psychotexture the album proves surprisingly warm and easy to listen to. Lese Majesty lacks this ultimate coherence. Even once you memorize every little detail on the damn thing, it still sounds disjointed.
After the oceanic opener “Dawn in Luxor” and a song called “Forerunner Foray” in which the original “Dawn in Luxor” bassline turns into a vacuum cleaner, lead promotional single “They Come in Gold” sizzles with a beat so tricky its layers contain layers. It starts with a demented vocal loop and snippets of some percussion track, then Butler starts rapping and the beat builds. After about a minute and fifteen seconds, metallic groans start cutting in, quickly shifting into a keyboard variant on the vocal sample. The percussion largely drops out, golden sparkly tinkly wire strands are draped over the mix, a pitch-corrected voice repeatedly whines “Ice cawwwwwwwld,” and said keyboard variant carries the song to its finish. You keep expecting the initial hook to take over again, but it never comes, effectively splitting the track into two parts. Not all the songs on Lese Majesty follow this pattern; some have even more components to them, and many never reach that level of clarity. But “They Come in Gold” sets the tone on an album that keeps shifting around through atmospheric lenses and prickly metal grates all the way to its musical peak two songs from the end, “Motion Sickness,” featuring not just the most compelling verse from Butler but also the craftiest beat. Its shaky, rubbery synthesizer blanket shudders and slides, repeatedly leading up to a high electronic click that’s probably just an extension of the same instrument but sounds like its own musical element, like one of those computer bleeps that scold you for trying to do something the machine doesn’t want you to. Soon the synthesizer chords split into two separate strands, one constant, one fading in and out. A steel xylophone or something resembling one chimes in towards the end, gradually shimmering into the next track. All throughout “Motion Sickness,” you wonder if that recurrent bleep is actually part of the song—maybe it’s your phone, your microwave, your smoke detector. Obviously it isn’t; it’s perfectly timed with the rest of the music. But nevertheless it messes with your mind.
In Digable Planets, Butler’s rapping was clear, smooth, crisply enunciated, always positive and self-respecting, to match the light feel of the music. Now that his beats have made a quantum leap in difficulty, he hasn’t gotten tougher, exactly, but his voice is usually a little lower, and he often runs it through scratchy filters or rusty drainpipes. Palaceer Lazaro is nowhere near as nice as Butterfly once was, letting his tongue rip all over the album; his jaded composure well suits a group devoted to confounding your expectations. The long songs on Lese Majesty gnaw at your ear with sharp teeth and striking dissonance, turning every sour buzz into a pleasurable riff — these include “They Come in Gold” and “Motion Sickness” as well as the spiky “#Cake” and the impressionistic “Ishmael,” wherein all his keyboard tones come together to form one glittering rainbow. But although the shorter fragments support the musical concept and the album’s overall rhythm, by no means are they as fully realized as any of the longer ones. While they never wither away into total ambience, several times they come close, especially when the drum track is missing or Butler declines to rap coherently. Wedged between two equally opaque pieces, “Colluding Oligarchs” and “MindGlitch Keytar TM Theme,” the hysterically and all too accurately titled “Suspicion of a Shape” typifies the album’s broken, irregular flow. Fusing mbira/xylophone thrum, sampled maracas or some comparable noise, and gleaming electronic shudder into one hissing entity, “Suspicion of a Shape” is rich, woozy ear candy, a neatly textured synthesizer jewel, a delightful interlude within the larger structure. It is not itself a complete or particularly compelling piece of music.
By any reasonable standard of listenability, Lese Majesty barely approaches the rewarding wackiness of Black Up. Its beats lack spark; its chaos lacks audacity. But even in its jumble, its confusing lurch, its maddening incomprehensibility, the sonics and the textures make it a whole lot of fun just to listen to regardless. It’s an entertaining record best contemplated in the background. It’s a postmodern sound collage smaller than the sum of its parts.
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