Shabazz Palaces: Lese Majesty
Recently, some rumors circulated to the effect that I am not a tiger. They go on to claim that I am in fact a human masquerading as a noble beast for the purposes of a blog gimmick. Allow me to allay any such concerns with a cleansing palliative. I am a tiger, albeit an unusual one. Those who want to continue propagating this rumor can direct their conspiratorial ramblings to my editor. That said, I only bring this up because the arrival of Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty marks an important milestone for this humble publication. The Tiger Manifesto––then under the name Memoirs of a Culture Stalker––began on August 7, 2012, meaning that yesterday was the second anniversary of my only successful blogging project. On August 12 of 2012, I reviewed Shabazz Palaces’ first album Black Up, and I enjoy the synchronicity enough to publish this a few days before that.
This blog has undergone much renovation in two years, moving from a scattershot blog featuring reviews and scattershot ramblings to a more focused Marxist theoretical blog. We’ve gotten almost 20,000 hits since then, leading me to hope that there are at least a few of the original readers still sticking around.
With that backward gazing out of the way, let’s turn our eyes to the skies. I’ve written about my distaste for apocalyptic fetishes and the No Future mope that has crept into so much bourgeois American music and film these days. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I’ve gravitated toward futurist music, especially Afrofuturism, since they tend to hit my sweet spot somewhere between political activism, embrace of modern technology, and psychedelic forms. Lese Majesty lands right on target in this regard, combining a confident improvisation in lyrics with rigorous editing an track arrangement. In that way, the album sounds ceremonial, harnessing spontaneity within strict limitations that focus and concentrate it. Compared to my other favorite Afrofuturist musical act, Sun Ra, Shabazz Palaces has a far more concise method of communicating its spacey concepts. Where Sun Ra’s compositions provided enough temporal space for lengthy instrumental improvisations and deep-space excursions, the music of Lese Majesty is compressed and intensely verbal. The album has the efficiency of a They Might Be Giants album, packing eighteen tracks into forty-five minutes.
Most of these tracks are under three minutes in length, and cannot or will not stand on their own. In particular, tracks like “Solemn Swears” sound more like mantras than songs, impeccably produced but cut short before they can develop. Another song sweeps in to fill the gaps, and the album proceeds in this staccato fashion for most of its runtime, pausing for one of the seven longer tracks once in awhile. It would be fair to call much of this album sketchy or even incomplete if not for its mastery of flow and surprise. The songs are split into seven suites, which are described in the booklet that comes with the iTunes and CD versions of the album (perhaps among other versions).
Though the lyrics are hardly a tertiary concern for the album, as they’re quite pointed and even militant at times (especially against the superficiality and narcissism of mainstream hip hop), they don’t weave into an overall concept. Instead, the music itself functions as the album’s connective tissue, tying the disparate fragments and tracks in a sort of web that keeps enough consistency to ground the various tangents and diversions the album confronts you with. There’s plenty of ornamentation here, incorporating more synthesizers and reverb into the mix, but it’s never ostentatious, and it’s hardly the point in any case. This are space grooves, and there’s no point in visiting outer space if you’re not going to take an awed look around once in awhile. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this “the future of hip hop,” since it’s right here with us now, but if it is a prophetic glimpse into the future, I’d have to call it one of the most hopeful glimpses I’ve seen in a long while.