In the five years since his last solo album None Shall Pass came out, New York-born, San Francisco-based rapper Aesop Rock has toured the globe, launched the bizarrely-intriguing 900 Bats art collective, and collaborated with Felt, Hail Mary Mallon, Dirty Ghosts, and the Uncluded. His verses may still require a magic decoder ring in 2012, but what’s changed most considerably in this past half-decade is his approach to production.
Having the opportunity to helm Slug and Murs’ third Felt record in its entirety opened up new channels for Aesop, as he applied a thunderous boom-bap collage to Felt’s most complete record to date. Working with Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz for Hail Mary Mallon’s debut allowed Aesop to tinker in more lighthearted realms; much of his work tends to land in varying degrees of darkness. Aes and Rob’s highly-caffeinated back-and-forth’s gelled effortlessly with the uptempo production. His drum programming for Dirty Ghosts, the Bay Area band fronted by Allyson Baker, proved he can dabble and excel outside hip hop. Glimpses of The Uncluded, Aesop’s group alongside Kimya Dawson of Moldy Peaches fame, have yielded manic guitars, sinister drums, quirky writing, and some of the best folk rap this side of Ceschi and Astronautalis.
All of these diverse side projects offered Aesop the chance to grow outwardly and organically without the stymying nature of label deadlines. That being said, a five-year hiatus between solo albums is a long time, and fans get antsy. With expectations high, Aesop has put out his sixth studio album Skelethon, via Rhymesayers. While the 15-track left-field memento mori may not be as instantly absorbing as some of its predecessors such as Labor Days, it’s still a stellar exhibition of cryptic manifestos and singular beats.
“Leisureforce” starts things off with unsettling notes and subtle scratches before the drums hit and Aesop urgently explores the pros and cons of a reclusive lifestyle. On “Homemade Mummy,” Aesop details the process of mummifying a dead pet, with the song’s hook doubling as a plea against cold rationality: “Take the brain out, leave the heart in.” It’s the sonic sister to a series of morbid promo videos featuring Aesop walking his dead cat on a leash throughout SF and confronting the grim reaper. Aes’ comedy is of a very particular breed, an offshoot of gallows, and it suits the overall product well. The humor inherent in tracks such as “Fryerstarter,” which details the mystical connections between a Barbary Coast donut shop and the heavens, is a welcome diversion from an album so fraught with loss.
Camu Tao’s death from lung cancer in 2008 sent ripples through the indie rap community. Friends and collaborators from Aesop to El-P to Cage were shaken to their core, and much of the art they have created since Camu’s passing has been deeply influenced by his life and spirit. On “Racing Stripes,” Aesop speaks of Camu’s habit of giving himself purposefully terrible haircuts as a means of creative motivation. He would not allow himself to repair his rat’s nest until a specific goal had been reached, such as making enough beats to pay rent, and hats were not allowed to mitigate the waiting period.
The double-time wizardry of “ZZZ Top,” reminiscent of “Coffee” from None Shall Pass, showcases Aesop’s range of delivery in all its glory, and conveys just how far his production chops have come over the years. It’s an instance of head-nodding catching up to head-scratching. The buttery bass line and crashing cymbals mesh wonderfully with deft cuts, as Aesop uses the imagery of childhood musical obsessions to illustrate the powerful effect of being part of something creative.
The emcee opens up in straightforward, self-critiquing fashion on album-closer “Gopher Guts,” a rare occasion of Aesop stepping out from behind the curtain. The previous offering, “One of Four,” showed up as a hidden track on the Daylight EP way back in 2002, as a chronicle of a near-death experience encircled by the heights of social anxiety. “Gopher Guts” includes some of the album’s finest writing, via witticisms such as: “Got a little plot of land where authority isn’t recognized / Contraband keeping the core of his Hyde Jekyllized.”
While the majority of Aesop Rock’s beats on Skelethon get the job done and suit his abstract storytelling quite well, it’s hard not to miss the chemistry of Aesop and New York beatsmith Blockhead. The new palette, incorporating the guitar work of Hanni El Khatib and Allyson Baker, swaps yesterday’s lush soundscapes for funky, drum-heavy patterns bearing the indelible industrial influence of Brooklynite El-P. All things considered, this is a relatively minor complaint, as one can’t help but marvel at Aesop’s beautifully off-kilter brain chugging along at frame rates we’re still largely struggling to catch up to.