San Francisco-based rapper Aesop Rock is on a star fleet cruiser many universes away surrounded by droids. He has been strapped to a chair, and a nine-inch needle hovers just in front of his left eye. Right before the Master Droid instructs one of his drones to plunge the needle through Aesop’s skull and into his brainstem to extract the coded government secrets contained within, a giant giraffe/turtle hybrid storms into the room, guns blazing.
Only not really.
The above is an imagined scenario attempting (poorly, perhaps) to temper your mind, prime your senses and get you into a certain headspace. This is Aesop Rock (Birth name: Ian Mattias Bavitz) we’re talking about, so you’ll need to get nice and comfy with abstract thoughts, fantastical anecdotes and futuristic something-or-others. There’s a lot to process in Aesop’s musical matrix. Ideas fly at you one million miles a minute. Anything can happen, and likely will.
His new album, Skelethon, is his first solo in half a decade—that’s a lifetime in hip-hop. “I guess the reason for taking my time with the solo stuff is merely that I didn’t feel like it,” says Aesop point blank over email. “There were a million things going on, and it’s been a weird five years.”
There are a few specific things that may have contributed to the weirdness Aesop alludes to: 1) Aesop’s best friend died. 2) Aesop’s longtime label, Definitive Jux, shuttered. 3) He found a new home, Rhymesayers Entertainment, the headquarters to hip-hop notables like Brother Ali, Atmosphere, MF Doom and Philly’s own Freeway. And 4) Aesop produced Skelethon himself. None of its 15 tracks bear the fingerprints of his longtime producer/collaborator Blockhead, though the two remain close.
There’s also this little nugget of a quote he gave Pitchfork in May: “I have slowly become a more and more isolated person in every facet of my life, perhaps to an unhealthy extent. I wouldn’t want to work with me.”
He seems alone on that front. In those five years, he’s produced a full-length record for Felt (Slug & Murs), released a record with his group Hail Mary Mallon (featuring Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz, with whom he’s currently touring) and recorded an album with the Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson as the Uncluded.
“I pretty much stay busy with music all the time,” he says.
One listen to Skelethon, and you’ll wonder how he had time to do anything else. It’s a dark, tightly woven tapestry that is the unique product of his fertile brain. On it, you’ll find, in no particular order, the following: Antiquated gentlemen outlaws, a Ferris wheel of vitriol, blood-splattered butchers, displaced seals, changing ocean temperatures, ghost crabs, secret symbols scrawled underneath dressers, black rainbows, jarred brains, self-destructing memos, Chinatown turtles (but, alas, no giraffe/turtle hybrids) and much, much more.
It’s dense. Esoteric. Enigmatic. It’s a fine return to form in the face of so much change. He hasn’t lost a step—the guy can still cram more words in four bars than many rappers do in a song. And, as always with Aes, those words are a thorny labyrinth. On Skelethon, things are darker than ever. The dystopia he paints is more dystopian. The thing is an Alex Jones conspiracy theory set 100 years from now on some violent back alley in deep space, set to skittering beats.
As rapper Danny Brown tweeted in a very Danny Brown way around the time of the album’s mid-July release: “Every Aesop album is like a novel bruh bruh … shits be epic … 2 thumbs up.”
Brown (part of XXL ’s lauded 2012 Freshman Class) has made it known over the years that Aesop’s artistic influence weighs heavily on his own work. He famously took Aesop’s 2007 opus None Shall Pass and wrote the lyrics out longhand in page after page of a notebook, attempting to chop through the intimidating thicket. You can also hear the influence of Aesop and the Def Jux imprint he helped pioneer in many an up-and-comer (Das Racist, Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire).
And yet, Aesop’s style is so alien, it’s hard to hear the influence of any other artist in his own music.
They’re there, he assures. “The usual suspects,” for a rapper his age, he says. “BDP, EPMD, Public Enemy, Run DMC. I get inspired by artists I find unique. Instead of wanting to copy them, it makes me want to be my own person more.”
The whippersnappers donning an Aesop feather in their caps indicate just how long he’s been in the game. His first major hit for Def Jux, Labor Days, came out in ’01. He started rapping while in college in the mid-90s. He’s now 36. Needless to say, he’s had a front-row seat for the massive top-to-bottom changes music has seen over his long career.
“Well, the biggest change would probably be the arrival of the ol’ Internet, which wasn’t really a factor when I came into this stuff,” he says. “Both Snoop Dogg and MC Joe Shmoe are one click away from you at all times now. I guess the difficulty lies in finding a way to make people click in your direction.”
“Luckily,” he continues, “I don’t own a label and never wanted to, so I just need to do my best to make quality music and leave the rest up to other people ... In many ways, my actual goals haven’t changed at all. It’s more the industry that has changed, but the industry has always been something I avoided like the plague.”
With Skelethon , those stated goals certainly remain intact. And, if you try hard enough, you can already see the next novel taking shape.
Sat., Aug. 4, 9pm. $15-$17. Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. utphilly.com
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