“We just want our hermitry to stay and our coffee to go,” Aesop Rock warned us on the final track of the now 5-year-old None Shall Pass. Time has proved that he really meant himself, as he hasn’t released a new solo album since, with occasional collaborations and a few tours, but other than that he’s a self-confessed shut-in. Fortunately for us, some of America’s greatest writers have been agoraphobic recluses: Emily Bronte, J.D. Salinger, H.P. Lovecraft, Fiona Apple and Aesop Rock. Certainly the more refined amongst our readers may balk at the combination of names in that sentence but those wordsmiths have more in common than one would think at first glance. On his latest album Skelethon, Aesop proves why he belongs among such distinguished names.
For those that have been living under a rock for the past decade, a little refresher on one of hip-hop’s most unique and talented MCs: Aesop Rock came to prominence around the turn of the century with the incredible one-two punch of Float and underground sensation Labor Days (these got him notoriety, no Appleseed and Music For Earthworms were not forgotten). Originally lumped into the “backpack rap” indie scene along with his label-mates at Definitive Jux—El-P, Mr. Lif, Cage and Cannibal Ox, they brought a radically different voice in the rap game. With each release he pushes himself and the genre into new and exciting territory. Armed with sublime beats by Blockhead and a vast labyrinthine vocabulary, Aesop blazes a trail that resembles no other, delivering clever and engaging hip-hop.
Aesop Rock’s “Zero Dark Thirty”
A lot has changed in his life, unbeknownst to much of his audience. Last album we saw a glimpse of a man in transition, recently uprooting his life in New York City for San Francisco, but this album feels decidedly more like a settled-in resident of the west coast. In many of his earlier albums, NYC was almost a character itself in many of his songs and one got a palpable sense of life in the Big Apple by listening to his records. More importantly, reports have it that he’s encountered several personal tragedies and whether it’s the result of this or the evolution of his personality, he’s become increasingly withdrawn.
There’s darkness to this album that’s not apparent in even his most cynical of past material. “Crows 1” has visceral macabre imagery courtesy of deadpan chanting from Kimya Dawson and “Crows 2” ups the ante with cannibalism. “Ruby ‘81” is a brief number detailing the accidental near drowning of a small child and “Homemade Mummy’s” hook is about vital organ removal. Even the goofy haircut-focused “Racing Stripes” is injected with sadness when you realize it’s a story reminiscing about his dead friend and fellow rapper Camu Tao.
Aesop Rock’s “ZZZ Top”
But that’s about all the lyrical analysis you’ll get from this review. Someone could spend entire reviews, even entire books trying to untangle all of the brilliant and tangled metaphors that make up every song on this album. Besides, half the fun of listening to Aesop Rock is the repeat listens, catching new lines each time or reading along, interpreting what he might mean by the things he says. Suffice to say it’s some of his most intricate wordplay to date and it’s generally brooding and self-reflective in nature but still has hints of his humor—“Fryerstarter” is about his favorite doughnut shop and in “Grace” he vents his hatred of veggies. If you want to hear one of the most talented re-arrangers of the English language in modern times then you’ve come to the right place.
To be honest, even after a solid week of listening, it’s still too early in to analyze this album too much further. It’s a dense work and only with repeated listens does it begin to unfold. A large part of this is thanks to the production, which is all courtesy of Aesop himself. Since Bazooka Tooth he’s been doing his own beats more and Blockhead’s less to the conflicted reactions of many. The chemistry between the two is undeniable and one can’t help but wonder what he could have done with this album. On the other hand, these beats are tailor-made by Aes for Aes, so he’s able to wring every ounce of potential from each loop and flow. The biggest difference is probably the lack of any sort of keyboards or horns and instead a focus on drums. This album thumps with bass and hits harder than any of his previous albums, giving all of the claustrophobic rhymes even more menace and gravity. It is a monolithic work that people will be dissecting for years to come.
The best way to think about Aesop Rock’s artistic progression is comparing it to chocolate. His early work was semi-sweet, with lovable beats but great socially conscious, serious lyrics. From there it becomes like an increasingly high percentage of dark chocolate. It may get increasingly less sweet the more pure and unfiltered it is, but if you can acquire a taste for it, you’re in for one of the most rich and rewarding experiences you can hope to have. Isn’t that what keeps us returning to the works of the writers mentioned earlier? We are drawn in by the initial offering but stay for the complexity that reveals itself in later works. Their creations are something that speak to the dark corners of our soul and become everlasting in the psyche.
Jarad Matula | Senior Writer