In a recent NPR interview about their latest effort, Lese Majesty, Shabazz Palaces’s Ishmael Butler offered a challenge to contemporary emcees and hip-hop artists. At one point, the former Digable Planet said,  “This endeavor that I pursue, that we all pursue in Shabazz Palaces, make no mistake, this is an attack. We’re trying to show off and really stunt on all other rappers and let them know that this is our style, this is what we do and we’re ready to put it up against anybody else’s stuff.”  In fact, in some way this shouldn’t be very surprising because throughout his musical career, Butler has attempted to push hip-hop forward both sonically and thematically. 

And with Shabazz Palaces, Butler and his cohorts have carefully crafted an aural experience unlike anything I’ve ever heard before in hip-hop – or in any other contemporary music. The material on Lese Majesty often employs the use of layers upon layers of synth to evoke the sense of a surreal feverish dream – the sort of dream in which the laws of physics don’t consistently apply and yet there seems to be an almost tangible thread of logic. But as you listen to songs that are dreamily ethereal, there’s sledgehammered beats and bass that drives things back to Earth’s gravitational pull, and it creates an uncanny tension. 

 “#CAKE,” is a single that I’ve found myself continually entertained by and obsessed with for some time. The single, much like the rest of the album cements Butler and his cohorts’s reputation for being relentlessly experimental and challenging; in fact, “#CAKE” reveals a decided change in sonic direction  as they’ve incorporated pulsating New Wave-era synths, which add a futuristic sheen to the psychedelia. And as you listen to the song, notice that the song is sinuous as it effortlessly morphs and shifts with a sense of unpredictability.  In fact, structurally the song defies contemporary songwriting techniques. Sure there’s a hook – but the hook is the chorus. And the song feels comprised of 3 or 4 completely different segments linked together only by the hook. 

Adding to the song’s glorious weirdness, is the fact that Ishmael Butler as an emcee is unheralded for both his inventive rhyme schemes. Check out how he shouts out Paris, Mogadishu, the Bronx, Neptune, Pearl Jam and talks about secret meetings in the stratosphere. And it all somehow makes a certain sense. 

The official video for the song is comprised of some gorgeous and yet very strange imagery. Characters are running around and dancing in a post apocalyptic world that bears an uncanny resemblance to Detroit – in particular, “decay porn” photos of Detroit.  

The track seems to evoke the sensation of going through a wormhole and discovering a surreal plane of existence in which the known laws of physics don’t consistently apply. But if there’s one consistent thing Ishmael Butler as an emcee is unheralded for both his inventive rhyme schemes and his weirdness. Check out how he shouts out ParisMogadishu, the Bronx, Neptune, Pearl Jam, synth pop and a bunch of other things randomly — and yet it makes sense in its own right. 

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