Ishmael Butler first came to prominence in the early 90s as “Butterfly”, the head of hip hop trio Digable…
Ishmael Butler first came to prominence in the early 90s as “Butterfly”, the head of hip hop trio Digable Planets, whose place at the forefront of progressive hip hop is typified by the impact of their Grammy-winning debut single, ‘Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)’. It set out Digable Planet’s mission statement: the creation of a new wave of hip hop; one with a sleeker, more sophisticated sound, with more nuanced messages and without its historical platitudes.
But the group’s goals were cut short as they disintegrated in 1995, mainly due to internal conflict, and it was nearly 15 years later that Butler again rose to acclaim. This time it came alongside multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire as ‘Shabazz Palaces’, and transpired with their 2011 Sub Pop debut, Black Up. By design, it shared very little in common with Digable Planets, sonically or aesthetically, and yet it retained a suggestion of the mystique and inventiveness that was so characteristic of Digable Planets: traits which are ostensibly Butler’s modus operandi.
Black Up closed with ‘Swerve… The reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)’, an echoing, futuristic tirade whose last gasp sounded like the breath before the plunge. That plunge is picked up by the follow-up to that album, Lese Majesty, which opens with the first of its seven suites, the aptly entitled ‘Phasing Shift’. The opening song is called ‘Dawn in Luxor’, which beats like a war cry, but one which calls for “sounds [that] pour like golden licks of time” rather than any posturing of violence. This is the real crux of Les Majesty. It is an album that lays all classical hip hop pretensions to the side, and lifts a kind of sultry brightness into their place instead. The songs flow into one another, and the suites mesh into a fluid symphony. The layered beats are lifted above the vocals, almost drowning them, which means that the album sounds as underwater as it does otherworldly. And yet as soon as these elements seem to create a serene, atmospheric moment they’re interrupted by a robotic shudder, unfettered vibration or off-kilter vocal sample. The songs writhe and mutate in almost Dilla-esque fashion; they refuse to sit still for a moment, but as the album progresses it becomes more and more evident: its motions are perpetually and unrelentingly forward.
Its pure force of creativity gives it a transcendental feel: it feels new at every turn. But this also means that it’s difficult to draw any meaningful comparisons, especially within the genre, not even with similarly revolutionary artists such as Kanye West or Clipse. It’s almost akin to Thom Yorke’s impact on rock and electronic music. In fact, the Yorkean comparison goes further than that – there are sonic and structural resemblances too, as well as an almost unparalleled attention to detail. It flies in the face of the dominant mode of abrasive, jagged hip hop without losing any of its sway – a feat which feels as counterintuitive as Morgan Freeman’s voice on helium https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRKVQcbIByo.
The counter-intuitiveness extends to the way that Butler approaches the songs on Lese Majesty: there’s often no distinction between verse and chorus, or even between the songs within suites. “Suite 3: Palace War Council Meeting” provides a good microcosm of the rest of the album; it flits around from the seemingly haphazard hi-hats of ‘Soundview’ to the unerringly smooth ‘Ishmael’, and yet the transition is entirely unnoticeable. And that’s a tendency that continues throughout the album. ‘Noetic Noiromantics’ begins with a looping, discordant vocal sample and severe, monotonic thump that sounds like it will develop into an eddying chant in the ilk of ‘Youlogy’, only for these expectations to be twisted a hundredfold as the song unravels into one of the most effortlessly romantic songs the genre is likely to see.
Such constant transmutation sounds like it should be messy, but Lese Majesty is so cleverly sequenced and slickly transitioned that it retains its smoothness throughout. But the smoothness doesn’t come with uniformity, there are songs, like ‘They Come in Gold’ and ‘#CAKE’ which stand up and rumble with regal imperativeness as the others churn around them. And yet where Lese Majesty truly finds its feet is with its most melodic and intoxicating moments: ‘Ishmael’, ‘Motion Sickness’, ‘Colluding Oligarchs’ and the album’s swirling masterpiece, ‘Forerunner Foray’. These songs lend themselves as well to being blasted in nightclubs as crooning through coffee shops. It’s a fine line to tread, but one that Shabazz Palaces manage to balance perfectly.
The new wave of hip hop that Digable Planets set out to furnish never truly came to full fruition. With Lese Majesty, Butler has created an album that sounds like the culmination of that work 20 years on, and he again lays down the very same gauntlet. But what it has that Digable Planets didn’t, is that it provides a blueprint as well as just a mission statement. The album gets its name from the French term ‘lèse-majesté’, which is the name given to crimes which violate the dignity of a sovereign. After an album that pushes the boundaries of hip hop this far, it almost seems like a pointed finger to the rest of the genre and the hang-ups that it hides behind. If that’s the case, then this album is also the green light to bear it ceaselessly forward.