At long last, Hungry Hippopotamus is here to finally answer the question of what the best albums of 2014 were. About mid-way through the next year, I’ll be dropping the rest of 2014’s top 10 one at a time. If like the rest of the planet you are fully invested in the present and need to remind yourself of the list, check out part one here.
Here we are at part 2! The top 5 albums of 2014 are all marked by the teamwork that it took to make them. In a rap era where groups suffer because everybody wants to be a solo star (R.I.P. Black Hippy) and a year that was defined by conflict and ugliness, these albums were made by duos who realized that they could be more than the sum of their parts. A rare find in today’s rap landscape.
5: Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty
Lèse–Majesté, French for treason against a sovereign power, or offending a ruler. It couldn’t be more apt for Shabazz Palaces’ sophomore album, a quietly revolutionary record that sounds like the aural equivalent of giving the middle finger as you speed away in your getaway van.
When Shabazz Palaces dropped their critically acclaimed debut album Black Up in 2011, it seemed like a watershed moment for a new era of underground hip hop. In one of the best origin stories of the decade, Ishmael Butler, formerly Butterfly of successful jazz rap 90’s group Digable Planets, moved to Seattle, changed his name to Palaceer Lazaro and teamed up with producer Tendai Maraire to release two murky, powerful EP’s under the moniker of Shabazz Palaces. Black Up seemed like a revolution but four years later it remains an oddity, a dense statement that’s transmitted from outside of even the outermost layers of the genre. Now they return with their sophomore record Lese Majesty, which is even more insular, abstract, and confounding. It’s the best they’ve ever sounded.
Maraire takes the reins on this album, driving Lese Majesty into ethereal territory that sounds like aliens trying to cover cool jazz classics. This is maybe the most singular album of the year; songs blend into each other seamlessly, sparse soundscapes are peppered with futuristic loops. It’s a confounding first listen, ominous chimes playing against sci-fi theremins. But Lese Majesty creates a whole galaxy with Maraire’s sounds. The albums sounds like traveling through space; bumpy asteroid belts give way to adrenaline infused chase scenes, creeping waves of tension are balanced with disarmingly beautiful pockets of serenity. When the album finishes, it feels like you’ve gone somewhere.
Ish Butler plays more as a tour guide than MC, dialing back his role to focus on Maraire’s collages. He chants more than raps, but his rhymes are economical. In few words he’s able to mash together panafricanism, afro-futurism, science fiction, and hip hop history all together. Plus he sounds dope doing it, a rap Gandalf dropping lessons and being fly at the same time. His performance is what pushes Lese Majesty from being a curioso’s project to a powerful statement. He completes the metaphorical link of ancient African kings to interstellar rulers.
Lese Majesty is a pocket galaxy, a self contained universe that feels completely detached from modern times. It all blurs together except for the few moments it breaks open, like in the bitterly sarcastic “#CAKE” or the solemnly beautiful “Motion Sickness.” It is rare for any artist today to have such a strong identity that doesn’t revolve around the same signposts as everyone else, but Shabazz Palaces’ artistry can be found in every part of the album, from the stirring videos to the song titles. In an awful year, and a year where hip hop was forcibly made political, Lese Majesty showed a different type of rebellion. It is revolution through escape, a reminder of black excellence, a sign of worlds beyond that can be better than the one we have now. Treason through dreaming, an insult to the throne.