“Armchair hater, I wouldn't piss on your coffin but when I see your picture I draw dicks on it” – Aesop Rock is back, one of rap’s greatest lyricist (or if you lean the other way, a needlessly wordy nerd who can’t actually rap) who makes a welcome return after a five year break with his sixth studio album, “Skelethon”. As indicated by the above insult found towards the end of the album, he’s still not mincing his words, or simplifying his flow and lyrical constructions for that matter.
The timing of Aesop’s return to the music world a few months after that of El-P – the man responsible for putting out his previous three albums on Definitive Jux during the 00s – is perhaps only a co-incidence yet it feels perfect. The pair are arguably two of the most recognisable names from the backpacker rap era and – regardless of how you feel about that silly tag – were responsible for some of its finest work. As with El-P’s “Cancer 4 Cure” album, what makes “Skelethon” so great first and foremost is that Aesop hasn’t really changed the key elements of what made him a popular underground hero: he’s still one of the most articulate wordsmith around, he still has little regard for the genre’s established vocal standards, and his lyrics – and the real and imaginary worlds they paint – are still the star of the show.
To people like me who came of age with the likes of Aesop back then, “Skelethon” is a perfect throwback and a reminder that this kind of hip hop has aged rather well despite all the criticism levelled at it. In fact Aesop’s brand of uncompromising rap is arguably even more relevant today, in a world where its commercial counterparts are more omnipresent and where knowledge of rap’s history and myriad of facets is often lost on a generation of fans who’ve grown up with the internet as their primary means of music discovery and scene connecting. For those of you reading this who didn’t grow up with Aesop’s first appearances and Def Jux’s hegemony of the east coast rap scene, I’d like to think that “Skelethon” still has the potential to impact in similar ways thanks to its creator’s vision of his artistry.
But what about the music? This is the internet after all and we’ve nearly reached 400 words without a YouTube embed (if you’re fiending, the official video for “ZZZ Top” is worth a spin or three). The music on “Skelethon” is good, and entirely self-produced this time around lending the album a sense of cohesion that was sometimes lacking from previous outings. Sonically speaking the productions manage to stay true to Aesop’s origins with dark and broody moods built on strong breaks, clever chops and dense layers that act as the perfect bedding for the often complex rhyme patterns and storytelling Aesop likes to indulge in. It’s almost like you can listen to Aesop’s music on different levels: you could listen to both the lyrics and music as a whole, losing yourself in the layers, or you could focus solely on the lyrics and enter the ideas and worlds Aesop constructs with it. How you choose to approach it depends on where you’re consuming it I find – public transport journeys are great for the latter, home listening better for the former. There’s a definite rock flavour to a lot of the music on “Skelethon” too, seemingly helped by guest spots from Kimya Dawson, Hanni El Khatib and Allyson Barker. Highlights include the beatless “Ruby ’81” built out of crowd sounds and pulsating synths, “Crows 1” with its awkwardly rolling break, melancholic melodies and catchy-as-hell sung chorus and the fuzzy guitars and chopped breaks of opener “Leisureforce”. Aesop seems to be indulging in a penchant for drum rolls in the production of this album too, though make of that what you will I just thought it was interesting. Ultimately though, and unlike a lot of more modern rap releases, the instrumentals on “Skelethon” aren’t as good without Aesop’s vocals on them, they’re a key part of an integral whole which flows remarkably well across its 15 tracks though a small degree of repetition does creep in on multiple listens – some of the tracks work incredibly well on their own however.
Lyrics wise it’s easy to imagine that some might level criticism at Aesop for being purposefully obtuse and complex for the sake of it, again. Yet that’d be missing the point of what makes his music so enjoyable: sifting through the dense lyrics, metaphors and vocal imagery to find your own meanings and understandings, snatching snippets to repeat to yourself all day long. Aesop stands at an end of the rap spectrum that today is more often found – especially if you dig in rap’s lesser popular corners – yet has been missing a more recognised, and established, voice such as his.
For all these reasons, it’s good to have him back.