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SPIN Essentials

The Beautiful Game: Shabazz Palaces’ Enthralling, Convoluted ‘Lese Majesty’

SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: July 29, 2014
Label: Sub Pop

Navigating through Lese Majesty, the new record from Shabazz Palaces, is kind of like adventuring your way through the new-ish isometric puzzle game Monument Valley. Like the game, a personal quest is made mentally and emotionally textural because of the careful sculpting of its attributes. In the game, it is stylized challenges and rendered vistas. On the album, it’s the freefall of improvisational sounds, which can only be appreciated through dedicated study and partnership. Folded into the Lese Majesty liner notes is an actual architectural plot. The mind map, conceived by the album’s Toronto-based cover artist Nep Sidhu, delineates and adds depth to the seven suites that organize the album’s 18 clattering, visceral, shimmering tracks into distinct mood movements.

Lese Majesty — a French phrase, a more dramatic synonym for treason — is not of a place; it is, rather, a direct affront to the geo-specificity of culture. On “#CAKE,” vocalist Palaceer Lazarro (Ishmael Butler, formerly of Digable Planets) starts naming off cities and places — O-Town, Addis, Gaza, Seattle, Neptune, Montreal, Miami, Brixton. This is not “Kokomo” or M.I.A.’s “Bamboo Banga”; there’s no agenda here, no favoring of white sand or white-free locales. He simply raps and you listen, until something familiar (to you) clicks. Absent a narrative, or dialogue, or any real context for Butler’s mumbled, shrouded, whispered, purred, rapped lyrics, there arises an opportunity to be your own sonic pathfinder progressing through levels or, as Shabazz would have it, vividly named fantastical suites like “Murkings on the Oxblood Starway.” Shabazz Palaces are based in Seattle but their music is a ricochet from every direction. They have always resisted the confines of a neat narrative. Lese Majesty, like 2011’s Black Up and the two EPs that preceded it, is a call: the response is up to you, from wherever you might be at — in the world or your heart.

Unlike those two records, Lese Majesty is more sonically relaxed and triumphant. The lyrics are either metaphysical mandates for a creative life, or they double up as keen, slightly cynical social commentary. “I keep it do or die, and always think in terms of I,” goes one line on “They Come In Gold,” which feels half like a detuned, deconstructed EDM trap song and half like some screwed Turkish psych. A song later, on the new wave come down “Solemn Swears,” we hear “I make ’em dance just at a glance.” Is it boast or lament? Butler’s babbling flow might be dismissed as an overgrowth on instrumentalist Tendai Maraire’s lush, muscular, sometimes folk-y soundscape, but with Shabazz everything is intentional.

Just as the bass-filled vibrations could be from anywhere — Seattle, Virginia, South London, Luxor, but most often interpreted as the vague “future” — the lyrics are meant to guide you to an origin of your choosing. They are, as the song “Ishmael” puts it, “stories told in code.” Turn the sounds this way and that to see what the light or the height or the output does. Cavernous, effect-laden vocals (“Ishmael”), various metallic clangings (“…down 155th in the MCM Snorkel,” “Suspicion of a Shape”), pivoting meters (“Colluding Oligarchs”), and intermittent transmissions from a soulful female vocalist — THEESatisfaction’s Catherine Harris-White — maybe mimic the disorienting feel of outer space or some ’60s imagining of the near cosmic future.

But Lese Majesty feels more now, than then. In mirroring and transcending the schizoid, rootless form of digital society, it’s an attempt to help people cope with the culture. Like floating from level to placid level in Monument, listening to this record prompts your imagination and encourages discourse and reflection. Not the academic kind, but the kind of communal discovery people have been doing for ages.