Album Review: Aesop Rock – Skelethon

Posted: July 10, 2012 in Album Review, Best of 3rd Q 2012, Hip Hop
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“Are we supporting the artists or enabling the addict? I mean, I guess it matters to me, I wish it mattered to you” – Aesop Rock “Zero Dark Thirty”

Skelethon is the ninth album, sixth full-length, from Aesop Rock over the past fifteen years, but his first in almost five years.  Since the last time we heard from Aesop, Def Jux has dissolved, he’s moved out San Francisco, gone through a divorce, lost a close friend to cancer, and seen a drastic reduction in his collaboration with many of his former labelmates and close friends.  By his own admission in recent interviews, Aesop has entered into a much more solitary period in his life, perhaps to an unhealthy degree.  It is during these rough and lonely periods that artist often create some of their most thought-provoking work, but for Aesop Rock, an artist who is known to provoke a great deal of thought, that’s a daunting endeavor.  On Skelethon, Aes decides to go without any assistance from guests rappers for the first time in his career, and more surprisingly does not record over a single track from long-time collaborator and friend Blockhead, choosing instead to handle all of his production himself, for the first time.  While self-producing a featureless album (there’s a singing feature and some backgrounds, but we’ll disregard that for the sake of argument) certainly should be a recipe for extreme cohesion, it’s certainly a daunting task, especially for an artist not always known for producing his best material.

Unlike the work of Blockhead, which has historically been very melody driven, with complimentary rhythmic drum patterns, Aesop’s production has been historically more plodding and stab driven.  When Aesop was younger as an artist, his delivery was less rhythmic and instrumental.  That’s not to say that Aesop was ever offbeat or arhythmic, but rather he was at one point more concerned with the words he said than the rhythm with which he conveyed them.  That said, Rock’s flow has evolved drastically over the course of the last nearly 11 years since Labor Days came out and blew the collective minds of underground rap fanatics across the globe, and even more since the early days of Music For Earthworms, Appleseed, and Float.  While Aesop took the production reins predominantly on Bazooka Tooth, the reality is that at that point he wasn’t adept enough as a producer, particularly on the drums, to make a head-noddable yet stabby album, and his delivery wasn’t quite evolved enough to make up for the simplicity of the drums, or perhaps one matched the other.  The resulting product, while successful on many fronts and a decent album in its own right, was probably intentionally cacophonous, and nevertheless not as inviting as the more melodic collaborations with Blockhead.  When None Shall Pass came around in 2007, Aesop re-engaged Blockhead on a majority (though they nearly split duties) of the record and created a more melodic product, but at the same time Rock displayed a breakneck, yet funky, delivery over the album’s more upbeat bouncy moments that he had only hinted at a few times earlier in his career.  Generally on None Shall Pass, Aesop’s delivery had finally reached a point where he could engage listeners he couldn’t previously enlist with dense wordplay, melodious beats, and a strong voice.

Fast forward nearly five years and Aesop has spent some good time sharpening his skills behind the boards, including doing some stellar work producing the Felt 3 album Slug and Murs put out in ’09.  Without digging the “Behind: Skelethon” cliff notes Aesop has been throwing up on youtube, and digging through interviews, not a lot is easily discernible upon initial listens of Aesop’s dense new opus.  What is apparent however, is that Aesop’s decision to go completely solo on the production and rhymes is not the limiting factor it might have been earlier in his career, here it’s a revelation.  It’s also obvious he’s added a great deal of personal baggage, which makes sense given all of the contributing factors listed above (isolation, death of friend, label dissolution, divorce, etc).

One of the most notable steps forward here is the general funkiness of both his beat work and his delivery.  Songs like “Racing Stripes,” “Saturn Missiles,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “ZZZ Top,” all recall the breakneck funkiness of the greats from the fast rap era, as Aesop shows his skill at weaving his complex wordplay through frenetic jam-packed breakbeat drum patterns.  While most of the album is not delivered at the same frantic tempo, Aesop shows an ability on the album as both a producer to create his funkiest set of beats yet, and as an emcee to use his voice as the missing instrument in the mix in a fashion he had not previously achieved.  The stabbiness and discord of Aesop’s earlier work are present, but the presentation of them is symphonic rather than cacophonic.  While the album is strong enough musically to focus entirely on the musicality of the product, to do so would be a disservice to the work Aesop does with his pen on Skelethon.  As the musicality in general only invites the listener to engage the storytelling, and unravel the vocabulary to discern meaning, much as it did on Labor Days.

Without digging into the album’s individual concepts, Skelethon is, based on general imagery and the fleating moments when Aesop drops his meandering poetics to delivery more straightforward prose, one of the most personally dark, self-effacing, isolated, and manic-depressive rap albums ever created.  The album’s conclusive song, “Gopher Guts,” which bears a slight resemblance to “One of Four,” in it’s honesty and straightforwardness, from the often cryptic Rock, reads a bit like a letter from a twelve step member who is working to make things right with those he knows he has wronged through addiction:

“I have been completely unable to maintain any semblance of relationship on any level / I have been a bastard to the people who have actively attempted to deliver me from peril / I have been acutely undeserving of the ear that listen up and lip that kiss me on the temple / I have been accustomed to a stubborn disposition that admits it wish it’s history disassembled / I have been a hypocrite in sermonizing tolerance while skimming for a ministry to pretzel / I have been unfairly resentful for those I wish had acted different when the bidding was essential / I have been a terrible communicator prone to isolation over sympathy for devils / I have been my own worst enemy since the very genesis of rebels”

Much of the subject matter on Skelethon relates to the unhealthiness of Aesop’s lifestyle and artistry and the way in which is solitary drive towards it has driven those closest to him further and further away.  While some of Aesop’s lyricism on his post-Labor Days work hints at neuroses, none of it engaged these topics as head-on as Aesop seems to Skelethon. On “Zero Dark Thirty,” which Aesop essentially describes as a “temper tantrum,” Rock begs the question, “Are we supporting the artist or enabling the addict?  I mean, I guess it matters to me. I wish it mattered to you,” as he repeats that the phrase “down from a huntable surplus to one,” over the chorus and mentions a conspicuous “zero friends, minotaur, fugly step-child,” suggesting both the obsessive and unhealthiness of his artistry as well as his solitude.  “Cycles to Gehenna,” which is ostensibly about riding motor cycles in the city contains lines like, “this is a product of a DIY inadequate home,” and “here’s how a great escape goes, when you can’t take your dead friend’s name out your phone,” and both in title (Gehenna is a metonym for hell apparently), and in thematic approach, has a dark and ominous morbidity to it.  “Fryerstarter,” is about the late night treks of insomniacs to a donut shop.  “Ruby 81” is a tale of the nearly catastrophic consequences of a family putting their own fun before the safety of their own child, who’s naive sense of discovery almost leads to tragedy, only to have the family dog save her life and bail them out.  The album is filled with the dark and disturbing throughout, from an in-depth contemplation of graveyards, to the mummification of a cat, there are only fleeting moments of hope and joy here, and even when they do show up, they may be a bit disturbing in their own right.

Despite the darkness, the album benefits from the solitude.  The Catch-22 of it all for Aesop is that his art clearly benefits from the unhealthiness, something he seems to have realized throughout the creation of Skelethon. Perhaps some of it is the five year hiatus, both in the sense that it gave Aesop a long period to craft the album, and in the sense that it gave fans a long period to crave a new product from Rock, but Skelethon manages to pack the same kind of “holy shit what is this” punch that made Music for Earthworms and Appleseed so mindblowing to the pre-blogospheric underground internet rap scene and Labor Days so awe-inspiring to a much larger sect of new listeners.  While many of his fans have too much nostalgic attachment to those records to acknowledge this, Skelethon does belong alongside those albums and closely rivals Aesop’s best work to date.  At any length it is his most polished, and further proof that 2012 is the year of the album with one rapper and one producer, here, they just happen to be the same person.

“ZZZ Top” – Aesop Rock

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