Aesop Rock is one of the strongest rappers out there, both in lyrics and in flow. Listening to his lyrics is like a master class of simile and metaphor, and very often it takes more than a few runs to grasp what he’s talking about. His attention to detail and his talent in spinning rhymes like woven silk have helped him stand out in the hip-hop world. On Skelethon—the first album since 2007’s None Shall Pass—Aesop Rock gets a little personal, a little confessional even, and knocks out one of his best albums to date.
Skelethon is his first self-produced album, and the beats he employs complement the more personal story-lines perfectly. The production on past albums held Ace back from hitting the highest highs–songs like “Jumper Cables” from 2003’s Bazooka Tooth and “Guns for the Whole Family” from None Shall Pass exuded too much distracting industrial fuzz –but here on Skelethon, he has pushed his work to a whole new simplified level. He employs cleaner indie-rock guitar lines coupled with booming 808s on the backing tracks that let his words take over the listener. It’s more akin to past tracks like “Big Bang” from Labor Days: at times more atmospheric soundtrack for his labrynth-like lyrics.
The sweeping horror-film synths floating under the dark “Ruby ‘81” creates just the right ominous, nighttime scenery for the story of a two year-old who falls into a pool, only to be saved by the family dog while the adults absentmindedly watch 4th of July fireworks. Then on the other end of the spectrum, “Racing Stripes” has bouncing bass and percussion that work in lockstep with Rock’s schoolyard flow and couplets about a friend giving himself a bad haircut as motivation to work harder.
The playful nature of “Racing Stripes” is one of the few times the lighter side takes center on the album—including a hilarious story from his childhood hatred of vegetables on “Grace”—as Ace mines deep personal feelings for this set of songs. Personal turmoil of the passing of close friend Camu Tao (which also inspired much of El-Ps new masterpiece) and the dissolution of a long-time relationship (divorce from wife Allyson Baker who, oddly enough, plays bass and sings on quite a few tracks) sit front and center on most of the tracks. It isn’t that the songs are sad, but there’s a definite edge to his voice and words.
Lead single “Zero Dark Thirty” rants and contemplates about the state of the so-called “indie rap” over which Aesop Rock reigns supreme. He spits, “Moral compass all batshit spinning in the shadows of immoral magnets/ are we supporting the artist or enabling the addict/ I mean, I guess it matters to me/ I wish it mattered to you.” You can hear his anger and disillusionment of the whole scene trying to emulate what he and his peers started with: “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.”
The album ends with Ace cracking his heart wide open on track “Gopher Guts”. All of the anger, sadness, and irreverence comes out, especially on the closing verse. Rock focuses outward at the start, but in the end, turns all focus inward. The music drops to a droning synth and the first line slaps you in the face: “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.” He deconstructs himself like a rap battle in a mirror for a full minute, and then successfully wraps up all the emotion he brought to the surface throughout the album into a repetitive “on and on and on.”
Aesop Rock is 36 years-old, and after being in the forefront of the scene for nearly 15 years, his experimentation doesn’t have to be through concept albums and characters, but via simply experimenting with being himself and doing things entirely himself. He said recently that after his divorce and Tao’s death he grew more and more isolated, becoming someone he didn’t appreciate. Now, he’s removed all high concepts and stripped both the music and his voice bare, and Skelethon makes you feel that vulnerability and emotion — it’s real stuff.
Essential Tracks: “Gopher Guts”, “Grace”, and “Zero Dark Thirty”