SHABAZZ PALACES – Lese Majesty

Album: Lese Majesty

Artist: Shabazz Palaces

Label: Sub Pop

Release Date: August 12, 2014

Shabazz 7-18

www.subpop.com

BY JASON GROSS

In the outré-rap sweepstakes, this mysterious Seattle duo (Palaceer Lazaro &

Tendai “Baba” Maraire) is ahead of the game with MF Doom fallen off, breast-beating Death Grips gone and producer Madlib too prolific for his own good. Though they’re now two albums deep into their output, they’ve already made a strong impact with their early self-released EP’s (a self-titled one and Of Light, both highly recommended) and their presence on a brand name indie rock label.

Their less-is-more celestial ‘tude continues on Lese Majesty though in a much more minimal vein than Black Up, their 2011 debut album. Here, 18 tracks are divided into 7 suites with titles like “Palace War Council Meeting,” “High Climb to the Gallows” and “Murkings on the Oxblood Starway.”

The problem for this sci-fi noir crew is that they were already pretty minimal to start with, so subtracting even more material leaves them (and us) with a much smaller sonic plate to chew on. Maybe the problem is also that making the songs so short (only two break the 4 minute mark with most coming in at less than 3 minutes), many tunes are gone by the time that they have to leave a spooky impression, appearing more as a passing strange quirk than a real immersion experience as they probably intend. True, the tracks do flow, as they should in a suite, but they become background music as such, not demanding too much attention before they quickly disappear into the ether. Lazaro’s echoed, esoteric speak recalls rap pioneer Rammellzee, Though the late Gotham weirdo had humor (which is sometimes missed in Palaces) and even more bizarre mythology to wrap around his tunes.

Still, in a world where the strongest rap records are some of the (now) older masters like Jay-Z, Kanye, De La and Eminem still proving themselves, Palaces’ presence is a cause for hope for the genre, no matter how much the astute Questlove mourns for the style. Treasures await the patient listener who skips to the middle of the record to hear the clever wordplay couplets of “Solemn Swears” which name-checks Mr. Roarke (from ‘70s TV series Fantasy Island), Donald Duck and Jack Palance or the stuttering guitar and broom-sweeping background sounds of “Noetic Noiromatics” or the strangled voice samples leading into the soulful singing, dub-like atmosphere and distant megaphone raps on “Ishmael” or the shady vibes and languid, ‘hood-themed rhymes on “…down 155th in the MCM Snorkel.”

The craft, care, thought, vision that goes into this deep, deceptively multi-layered work like that is impressive indeed but you also wish the tasty center of the album was sandwiched by more filling toppings on either end of it which isn’t quite as inspired or masterfully assembled, unless you think tunelessly chanting ‘piece of cake’ or stumbling percussion marches (“Colluding Oligarchs”) and overly laid back stretches (“New Black Wave”) are meaningful in some way. Also, the many mini-fragments of songs scattered around the album maintain the spooky air (i.e. “Suspicion of a Shape”) but don’t contribute much more than that and some of the more promising ideas get cut short instead of being fleshed out, like the guitar-hooked “MindGlitch Keytar TM Theme.” Overall, this is the kind of album that you wish you could like more.

Some over-enthusiastic boosters claim that this is the future of hip-hop, and while it would be encouraging to see/hear more like Palaces (and no, Mac Miller doesn’t count), it’s not realistic and not just because Drake still moves so many units. SB makes hermetic/occult music by design, made to appeal to cults and that’s what makes them so proudly unique. Nevertheless, here’s hoping that next time, their ambitions include stretching out their songs and their ideas stuffed inside each tune. Hip hop needs them and they could still deliver amazing music when the right spirit from whichever dimension moves them.

DOWNLOAD: “Solemn Swears,” “MindGlitch Keytar TM Theme”

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