“Dawn in Luxor,” the opening track of Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty begins with a slow, sumptuous descent into atmospheric ecstasy, defined by its expansive embrace of opposites: past and future, organic and electronic sounds, paired images of Egyptian pyramids and space travel. It’s clear from this meticulously conceived opener that the album is after something different, a sense that only deepens as it unspools, moving through a carefully constructed series of 18 tracks, bundled within seven distinct suites. This is hop-hop with a singularly eccentric eye, full of patient, elegantly appointed songs, made even more enticing by their reserved composure. It’s an approach Shabazz Palaces has been moving toward over their previous three releases, and which finally comes into full force here. Just as RZA and his Wu-Tang cohorts gave standard street parables a mythic gloss, reinterpreting them through an original cosmology shaped from kung-fu movies, Eastern spirituality, and feudal-Japanese honor codes, the duo behind Shabazz Palaces (multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire and Digable Planets’ Palaceer Lazaro) establish an aesthetic that’s both instantly familiar and utterly alien.
While still fundamentally a hip-hop album, Lese Majesty sounds like few others, embodying certain core values of the genre with such a myopic focus that others are left out altogether. The album is almost totally defined by its emphasis on plushly interpreted audiophile mysticism. Full of evocative nods toward Pan-African, Five-Percenter, and Afrofuturist ideologies, its words presented as a murmured flow of gnomic phrases, Lese Majesty revels in its own lyrical impenetrability, but softens that obscurity by being so aurally accessible.
Most hip-hop exists at a fixed point on a long continuum, chasing or defining new trends while building on references to the genre’s past, and whether diaristic or political, the content usually works off the same general schematic. In this tradition, the beats serve the rapper, burnishing his or her reputation, the producer working behind the scenes to create a flashy casing for the words, often serving as one of many creative contributors. Here that dynamic is nearly reversed, and rather than the central figure, the rapper becomes merely another constituent component of the music. Buried inside the mix, amid tidally flowing songs that become difficult to separate from one another, Lazaro’s words remain essential in a quieter sense, signifying the balanced collaborative flow between MC and producer, which makes for the sort of lockstep unity that gives Lese Majesty its firm foundation.
Shabazz Palaces has always been a leftfield effort, arriving out of nowhere and sounding exotic from the start, but the distance between the group’s first two EPs, defined by a jagged, hectic overabundance of sounds, and this perfectly attuned, mysterious effort is massive. Black Up served as an intermediate point between the two, but even its composed song-cycle structure feels minimal compared to the ornate majesty on display here. On that previous LP, the opaque lyricism and quasi-spiritual focus were often grating, more haughty quirks on an album that defined itself by a forceful presentation of such weirdness. Here those idiosyncrasies are completely engrained within the fabric of the music, which reimagines hip-hop’s traditional continuum structure within a mythic, sacred context, intently fixated on a proud ancient heritage of pharaohs and kings, looking forward by sending the genre into outer space.
In this philosophy, the laudable legacy of the past lays the groundwork for endless possibilities in the future, and Lese Majesty stands as the best application of those ideas within a unique musical ecosystem since Sun Ra. Monolithic and magical, the album exists in a fantastical space just outside the genre’s usual perimeter, keeping its references odder and more compelling, crafting an inimitably consistent musical experience. It’s telling that one of the few recognizable samples here (on “Forerunner Foray”) comes from Lightnin’ Rod’s Hustlers Convention, an album that preceded rap, existing separately from the genre, but also akin to it. Songs like “Ishmael” and “Motion Sickness” achieve something similar here, recognizable in their relation to genre standards, but also undeniably foreign. They work fully as standalone tracks, but feel even more substantial when taken within the overall structure of this beguiling, addictive album, which finally turns this strange duo’s intellectual eccentricity into their greatest asset.