In his 2003 book Conversing With Cage, author Richard Kostelanetz quotes the inimitable avant-garde composer and philosopher John Cage discussing how the role of chance in his compositions is often perceived. "Most people who believe that I'm interested in chance don't realize that I use it as a discipline," Cage says. "They think I use it — I don't know — as a way of giving up making choices. But my choices consist in choosing what questions to ask."
Handing the reins over to spontaneity was a fundamental part of Cage's lifework to broaden the definitions of what music is, and to challenge listeners not to think about music in one-dimensional terms. Because sometimes, simply observing external forces, rather than manipulating them, leads to greater revelations.
Mulling all of this, and contemplating the role of chance when putting together the spacious and effects-heavy atmospheres of Shabazz Palaces' Lese Majesty, Ishmael Butler doesn't waste a second. "If we we're gonna do a pie chart of percentages, I'd say that chance was about 90 percent," says Butler, who records and performs under the name Palaceer Lazaro. "Chance definitely guided the greater part of the album."
Cage's place in the American avant-garde landscape of the 20th century, and Shabazz Palaces left field hip-hop excursions exist in wholly different realms of social and musical aesthetics. But their goals to live and thrive in the moment of creation are very much the same. "For me, the edge of spontaneity and chance — making this up on the spot and going with what's happening at that time — is where originality is found," Butler says. "I try to stay there as much as possible. A lot of times, it yields a result that even I don't fully understand, but it does mean something."
Wrapping one's head around this dynamic is key to grasping Shabazz Palaces music. For Lese Majesty, Butler and his musical cohort, Tendai Maraire, looked deep within themselves to summon the dark and lumbering beats that take shape throughout the album's 18 songs. Each number glides through a series of dark, experimental atmospheres that unfold in a wash of cosmic textures. Sampled bits of disembodied conversations, loops, phantom lyrical cues, and truncated bits of verbiage are woven into lyrics and song titles. Songs play out anywhere from one to three minutes in length, but the intangible depths of each song hang in the air long after the album is done playing.
At times Lese Majesty can feel quite impenetrable. Songs such as "Dawn in Luxor," "They Come in Gold," and the album's first single, "#Cake" unfold with their own sense of internal rhythm and logic. But in the scope of the album, each one settles into a focused sound palette. Stylistically speaking, this is hip-hop. But the clichés that have come to define hip-hop music's more mainstream trends — both instrumentally and lyrically — are nowhere to be found here. Songs remain open-ended enough to set listeners' imaginations in motion, without giving up any of the music's mysterious ways.
"We practice and play a lot, so when it comes time to capture these instinctive moments, what's happening is a result of reaching a certain state of mind in which you can reach your instincts and turn it into a finished product without filtering it too much," Butler says.
At times, there is an element of free-association that guides Butler's use of language. In the song "Solemn Swears" he eases his way through a long list of absurd similes, delivered in his characteristically unhurried vocal style: "I'm very nice like Jerry Rice/I make them dance just at a glance/I don't eat pork like Mr. Roarke/I'm coming up like Donald Duck/I scream and yell like Samuel L/I'm often on like Chaka Khan."
Elsewhere, throughout the album, lyrics fall like disconnected lines of a story that never quite reveals a clear narrative.
"These words are specific. You would probably be surprised by how different your interpretation of them is, and how simple my explanation of them is," Butler says. "But when it's dressed up, it's dazzling because it's weird," he adds. "It's weird because we don't give a fuck about the radio or videos or what a critic might say about the songs. We're just having fun, trying to communicate what's happening to us rather than trying to manipulate what's gonna happen to you when you hear it."
Still, his explanation of fuguelike moments of ethereal and meandering songs does little to clear up the lingering notion that a secret code is embedded somewhere deep within the music.
With the exception of Shabazz Palaces 2011 LP, Black Up, Butler's presence had slipped off the radar following his departure from Grammy-winning psychedelic stalwarts, Digable Planets. Back then he was best known as the group's lead rapper and producer, Butterfly. In 2003 his solo efforts culminated with the Cherrywine album Bright Black. The project's adaptation of more traditional funk, soul, and guitar-driven songwriting failed to leave much of an impression on anyone who heard it.
In 2009 the arrival of two self-released Shabazz Palaces EPs, Of Light and Shabazz Palaces/Eagles Soar, Oil Flows proved that, with his third incarnation, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Since then the trajectory has been aimed straight for the outer limits.
Lese Majesty carves out its own lane as both an experimental album and a hip-hop album that finds Shabazz Palaces embracing both disciplines with a distinct and laid-back vibe. Living in the creative moment has furthered the group's sound and vision, but how far ahead it can see seems to be of little consequence. "We will see these reviews of the record where people say that we're creating the future of hip-hop, but what does that mean?" Butler asks. "Does that mean that it's music from the future, or music that will influence how music will be made in the future? I don't know, but I don't think about it either."
As with Cage, the discipline lies in asking the right questions, rather than looking for the answers.
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