If Woody Allen were a hip hop fan, one of his more recent films would probably contain some joke about ‘pseudo-intellectuals’ overanalyzing the latest Waka Flocka record. It would be funny because it’s Woody. And it would be riotously hilarious because it’s true. But Aesop Rock is the rapper who would find his place, among Ingmar Bergman and Louis Armstrong, as one of the artists Woody consistently references with the utmost respect.
Like great works of literature, Aesop Rock records are meant to first be enjoyed on a purely emotional level, and then studied and analyzed once that feeling has reached its zenith. That’s potentially why it’s been five years since Aesop dropped his last official album (2007’s phenomenal None Shall Pass) — he’s been giving us all time to study his back catalogue and catch up. And so, here’s to new beginnings.
Skelethon, a masterpiece of mindfuckery, begins with “Leisureforce,” a dissection of the pros and cons of being reclusive to the point of total isolation. Rock closes his first verse with the words: “Blue in the menacing grip of a day for which you’re manifestly unfit.” Here, he chillingly pinpoints the problems facing those of us behind our desks penning whatever we can, fighting procrastination, while the rest of the drones move about their day outside. It’s the armchair artist manifesto. Cathartic, to say the least.
On “ZZZ Top,” Rock, over some of the records best clattering drums, delves into the mind state of three different youths separately discovering the power of music and beginning their personal cycle of perpetual angst. The first is infatuated with Zeppelin, carving ‘Zoso’ on his desk, the second scrawls ‘Zulu’ on his Chucks and the last has an affinity for publicizing the Zeros in bathroom stalls. All three verses are deftly constructed with Rock intricately spelling out each ‘z’ word at the same point during each verse while diagnosing the motivations behind the respective scribblings. Ultimately, all of it amounts to an emotive portrait of ‘synthesized cultures on a stage’ that deserves countless viewings, or listenings. All depends on how you look at it.
The album’s first single, “Zero Dark Thirty,” is Aesop’s rant, his temper tantrum — swag rap turned pyrrhic victory set to the tune of a frenetic dystopia. But, unlike the lines you might get from your run-of-the-mill Top-40 rapper, Rock is hell-bent on delivering a message: He is one of the last survivors of the underground from the early-aughts.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is Rock coming to terms with the fact that he is now a member of the old guard, if not its most prominent figure — one-time Def Jux darling turned overlord. The hook sums up his melancholic sentiments — something akin to “I run this shit, but it’s not what I expected” — quite nicely: “Roving packs of elusive young, become choke-lore writers over boosted drums, in the terrifying face of a future tongue / Down from a huntable surplus to one.”
That’s only the first three songs on this 15-track opus. And we haven’t even touched production. So far Rock has addressed apathy, isolation, crafted three similar, yet distinct bildungsroman portraits and asserted his rightful place apart from the “huntable surplus.” It would take more words than I’ve been allotted to get into how amazing it is that “Fryerstarter” is all about the glory of San Francisco’s Bob’s Donuts or how “Ruby ’81” is one of the best narratives put on wax in recent memory. So, I’ll just say that the record becomes even denser, that there is infinitely more worth mining here — like haircuts (“Racing Stripes”) and necromance (“Crows 1”).
Sonically, this record is among Aesop’s best work apart from anything with Blockhead. The chimes on “Fryerstarter” are the audible equivalent of a fantastical glazed-donut induced dream. The Hanni El Khatib guitar stabs on “Grace” perfectly complement Rock’s lamentation about being forced to finish loathsome vegetables before being allowed to leave the kitchen table. While “Tetra” has hard boom-bap-esque drums that fuse with the murky bass line and deftly placed funky guitar twang to create a backdrop for what might be the anthem for a video game addicted youth.
Now, everything above is just one man’s very humble opinion. There’s no right answer and no way I’ve touched on everything. As Rock says on “Tetra,” which is fittingly placed near the end of the album, “You are now rocking with the worst / Nothing up his sleeve / Nothing here is what it seems.” So, do all the “symbols under the dresser” mean anything? Yes. At least they do to me. Does a song about a donut shop or staying inside need to be this complex? Yes. “Are we supporting the artist or enabling the addict?” I don’t know. I’m just damn glad it matters to some of us.