Palaceer Lazaro's second album of conscious hip-hop is weird, funky, spiritual and futuristic
Big Boi breeds pit bulls. Snoop Dogg, it turns out, prefers cats. 50 Cent, joker that he is, owns a schnauzer named Oprah Winfrey. It speaks volumes about Palaceer Lazaro, hip-hop sorcerer behind Shabazz Palaces, that when it comes to posing with pets, he chooses to be pictured taking two well-fed pythons out for a slither. As a statement of blingy opulence, it’s a big look. As gangsta move, it’s pretty potent too. At the same time, though, it proves that while Shabazz Palaces are definitely moving in hip-hop’s orbit, they’re spinning further out than most.
‘Lese Majesty’ follows the Seattle group’s slow-burning Sub Pop debut ‘Black Up’, an elaborate tapestry of glittering electronics, drum machine jams and poetic expressions of African-American consciousness that puzzled slightly on its 2011 release. Shabazz, though, is kind of a second life for Lazaro. In a previous one, he was Ishmael ‘Butterfly’ Butler of Digable Planets, hippyish ‘90s jazz-rappers largely beloved this side of the pond by white people with dreadlocks. Listening to Shabazz Palaces, you can still hear occasional echoes of Digable Planets’ blunted funk and philosophical curiosity. But ‘Lese Majesty’ is a more avant-garde proposition. Cosmic, cryptic, sensual and spiritual, it positions Lazaro and friends in an Afro-futurist legacy which includes Sun Ra, the jazz bandleader who claimed to be an alien from Saturn, and the New York rapper and graffiti artist Rammellzee, who influenced the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill, and performed in the homemade armour of an interstellar assassin. Equally, of course, you could choose to hear Shabazz standing alone: rap space cadets on a mission to make their peers sound tediously earthbound.
‘Lese Majesty’ was recorded at Exalt Labs in Seattle, with Palaceer accompanied by Catherine Harris-White of THEESatisfaction and multi-instrumentalists Erik Blood and Thadillac. It comprises of 18 songs formed loosely into seven “suites”, each one called something like ‘Palace War Council Meeting’ and ‘High Climb To The Gallows’. It’s psychedelic in the true, expansive meaning of the word. Palaceer’s vocals are double or triple-tracked, giving his nasal rhymes a dreamlike quality, and his wandering soliloquies pop with detail: spitting “blackophilic, peodolistic, pedestrophic hymns” on ‘They Come In Gold’; gang lifestyle reinvented as cosmic fantasy on ‘Forerunner Foray’, with Harris-White adds breathy injections like a hip-hop Trish Keenan; or, on the futurist boom-bap of ‘#Cake’, reeling off a list of destinations like a interstellar travel agent: “Atlanta, Oakland, Addis, Gaza, Ramallah, Seattle, Neptune…”
Following Palaceer’s train of thought can be tough – what to make of/“I set the tone like Al Capone/I’m very nice like Jerry Rice/I’m coming up like Donald Duck” (‘Solemn Swears’)? But there’s enough sense scattered throughout to indicate he’s a man of principle, preaching self-respect and self-improvement on ‘New Black Wave’ and taking pot shots at corporate greed on ‘Colluding Oligarchs’. The music, meanwhile, is just as elevated, from the Funkadelic-on-ketamine jamming of ‘The Ballad Of Lt Major Winnings’ to ‘Mind Glitch Keytar Theme’, shot through with a drone that sounds like the Starship Enterprise pulling a handbrake turn.
Leftfield hip-hop can be a smug thing, either rather too pleased with its forays into abstraction, or pious in its refusal of genre norms. Shabazz Palaces’ real skill, though, is in taking weird-as-fuck sounds and themes and twisting them into something not just palatable, but catchy. ‘Lese Majesty’ is not a difficult record. It’s just one with the confidence to reject tired old models and build its own future logic, and the result is mysterious, spiritual, and funky as shit.