Great things happened in Seattle hip-hop in the year 2014 and many of those things took the form of cohesive, fully-realized albums. We’ll get to listing some of those tomorrow. Today, though, we’ll be talking about the two records that mattered most to 206UP, both within the last 365 calendar days and, as we’ll clumsily attempt to illustrate, time immemorial. One has specific ties to Seattle (it’s this blog’s top hip-hop album of the year). The other, while not intrinsically tied to the Town, was such a monumental — and surprise — release that it demands mentioning here. Both records flirted with the dimension of time the same way a drummer like Questlove flirts with rhythm: easily manipulated, altered to slow or speed our senses, and employed to imprint thoughts, memories and ideas onto our subconscious so that images like the one above become mere fossils in a morality tale we hope to never tell again in real life.
It’s tempting to place the importance of Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah — unarguably two of the year’s best albums — into the context of the recent social unrest in Ferguson and New York City because both albums fit the criteria of being “politically charged” music, and both, it’s vital to note, were actualized by Black artists. But that move, however critically appropriate, has tragically reductive consequences.
In Jonathan Zwickel’s Pitchfork feature “Event Horizon: Black Constellation’s Revolutionary Now” Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, one of the principal artists from the Black Constellation collective — which also includes Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfaction, Erik Blood, and other major players in the music and visual arts scene in Seattle (and beyond) — refers to his visual art as “the leavings” of a past “motion,” a conceit suggesting that, not unlike the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the celebrated art of Black Constellation is merely detritus left in the wake of the beautiful and tumultuous Black American experience. Alley-Barnes goes on to infer that the discussion and critical adoration that visits Black Constellation’s physical manifestations is actually a ruinous dismissal of the vital dialog that should have taken place before (generations perhaps) events like Ferguson ever happened.
The reaction by white America’s intellectualized critical industrial complex to the “leavings” of Lese Majesty and Black Messiah (or What’s Going On and good kid, m.A.A.d. city, for that matter) isn’t actually a “discussion” of societal issues at all. There is no conversation in which to engage because America historically has refused to pick up the phone: “There’s never been a conversation!” Blood asserts in the Pitchfork piece. It’s easy to see his point when you consider how the machinations of the 24-hour news cycle determine our perception of what’s happening in the world. If a Black teenager is shot dead by police, did it really happen if it wasn’t broadcast on CNN?
In his deservedly praised interview with New York Magazine, Chris Rock drew parallel reasoning when he said: “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy.” When audiences nod their heads to this in agreement, or laugh at Rock’s jokes that are meant to illustrate the same, what’s missing isn’t the acknowledgement of the sad truth in the statements, but the collective failure to acknowledge the truth that existed well before the jokes were written.
If that sounds something like a time paradox straight out of the movie Interstellar, then maybe we’re getting somewhere. I contended at its release that Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty resonated like a musical conduit into another dimension. There’s foreshadowing of things to come in the turbulent synth and hinted-at vocals that bend and twist around stabilizing rhythms. There’s an entire track (“Ishmael”) that seems dedicated to the musical affinities and creative history of its eponymous subject. There’s mockery and repugnance at materialism in contemporary hip-hop with allusions to the glory to behold if all of that were abandoned. Alley-Barnes describes “leavings” in his art, which is also a suitable descriptor of Lese Majesty’s sonics: everything is in its place, but often it feels viewed — or, more accurately, heard — suspended at some distant point, like asteroidal sediment from a perpetual cosmic tidal motion.
The wonderful, ironic secret of D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s Black Messiah is that its newly celebrated existence wouldn’t have been possible without the 15 year absence of its progenitor. The album release and its subsequent praise feels very much in-the-moment, but the time elapsed between Voodoo and today has engendered multitudes; time was Black Messiah‘s muse. “Ain’t That Easy” is a song simultaneously about a relationship between lovers and D’Angelo and his fans: we worried he’d left us for good, but we kept hanging on like fools, because, as it turns out, it ain’t that easy to leave. Fifteen years has caused us to question the virtues of the incomprehensible, impenetrable “1000 Deaths” while still gripped with rapt attention, wondering, Is this what I waited 15 years for? And 15 years of anonymous Black deaths at the hands of white police foretold the lament of “The Charade,” seemingly culminating in the current day’s events. Indeed we carried 15 years of baggage into that first spin of Black Messiah and the emotional noise wrought by those years was so loud that we could barely hear D singing his new shit. We’re still unraveling Voodoo, an album that disrupted a generation’s perception of what Black music could accomplish. Imagine how long it will take for us to feel at ease with the Black Messiah.
The penultimate scene in Interstellar has Matthew McConaughey’s character, Coop, entering a three-dimensional realm in which he can manipulate gravity across space and time. Like a ghost he pokes and prods tangible objects in his daughter’s bedroom in order to pass messages to her through the spacetime continuum. It’s hella trippy and weird and paradoxical, but also comforting. To feel like you’re running out of time is a crisis that is augmented the older you get. To mourn the time lost on this world by Mike Brown and Eric Garner is also to regret not taking decisive action against the powers that be before their murders. People far smarter than us have already proved that time moves at a different rate depending on your location and the speed at which you’re traveling. Could we reason then that the physical world dispassionately absolves us for our transgressions? Is this what Lese Majesty is trying to tell us?
Shabazz Palaces have one benefit above their artist brother Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, and that is that they work in a medium which transcends geometric space. If you catch the disembodied waves of Lese Majesty twenty, thirty, one thousand years in the future, the same mysteries and messages will be there to unlock as they are today. Musical traces like Lese Majesty and Black Messiah portend and recall the artists’ motions, and our motions in tandem. If we wanted to — and if we can just muster the will — we can consider these motions now and work to remove the regret of a painful future.