Saturday, May 4, 2013

AESOP ROCK: Skeleton

Aesop Rock - SkelethonIn the past, Aesop Rock’s labyrinthine lyrics (dense with metonymy, synecdoche and tongue-twister internal rhyme) spiked from the headphones of a million paranoid backpackers like the furious logorrhea of a supercomputer programmed to communicate only through hyperlinks. (Imagine a caffeinated MF DOOM whose book of rhymes features enough footnotes to flummox David Foster Wallace.) On 2001’s Labor Days (one of the great Pissed Off Opuses in hip-hop) he cemented a unique place in pop culture. Here’s a guy with the semantic complexity of a Wikipedia-addicted T.S. Eliot, and all the haunting, middle-finger snark of a vampire Lenny Bruce. No rapper is as clever. No rapper possesses such mastery of wordplay, allusion and surreal imagery. No rapper can make me grin so consistently by telling people to screw off in 10,000 words or more.

You only need to hear about ten seconds of Labor Days, after which you will either demand to hear the whole thing, right now, and again and again forever, or you will recoil in disgust. “Prickles of his voice too nasal! Ugghhhh, give us Barabbas!” 

On None Shall Pass, he focused his dense, daredevil rhymes into coherent narratives, (dig the surreal pirate yarn “The Harbor is Yours”) but didn’t always focus those narratives into anything relevant. For example, “Fumes” tells the sad story of an aspiring author and his addict girlfriend’s drug-death, and tells the tale with detail and clarity that eludes most short-story writers. But why? I don’t demand a clear-cut moral, or anything. These aren’t Aesop’s Fables (heh). I just need a reason to be invested.

That’s not a problem on Skelethon. This record is so personal you can see the aorta stains on Aesop’s ratty denim jacket. On what will probably be his last solo album before he’s officially middle-aged, Ian Bavtz sounds urgent, mature and laser-focused.

A song about a donut shop (“Fryerstarter”) investigates the relationship between aesthetic pleasure and faith, tongue in jelly-filled cheek. A song about a washed up daredevil (“Cycles to Gehenna”) is a surprisingly moving meditation on the way people deal with pain and loss. Elsewhere, songs about adolescent haircuts (“Racing Stripes”), teenage graffiti (“ZZZ Top”*) and a parent/child standoff over unwanted vegetables (“Grace”) show remarkable sensitivity and humor as they investigate the eager identity-assertion of childhood and adolescence.  

Adding to the personal nature of the project is the fact that Aes produced these tracks himself. I’m a fan of his usual go-to guy, Blockhead, and I think the self-produced Bazooka Tooth is the least-good of his albums. Here, however, the production is impeccably designed. Drums are muffled and rumbling, allowing the piercing vocals to stab and dart between columns of gauzy guitars and lo-fi whoooo-ing sounds that sound like ghosts (because, you know, I know what ghosts sound like, apparently). The sound world here is dense and desolate, much like the lyrics. It doesn't sound like anything else on the contemporary rap landscape.

Zero Dark Thirty” and “Gopher Guts” are two of the most moving moments in hip-hop’s recent history, and they’re indicative of Skelethon’s soft-focus gloom and aching tightrope between nostalgia and regret, the things that made it the most played 2012 release on my stereo. Aesop Rock may be the world’s least-accessible rapper, and he’s also the best lyricist since Bob Dylan.

·         * The titular Zs are ZOSO, Zulu Nation and TheZeros.

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