Album Review: Aesop Rock ‘Skelethon’
Skelethon is a fitting name for Aesop Rock’s soul baring new album, as he strips down not just the world around him, but holds himself to the fire as well. Rock’s dense verbosity has long made his music a favorite among hip hop fans looking for more than just punchlines, but the artistic bar is raised to a level on Skelethon that is almost unmatched in modern music. Skelethon is Aesop’s 6th full length solo album and his first since 2007’s None Shall Pass. A rapper who takes five years between solo albums might be considered lazy at first glance, but Rock’s brand of puzzle-like verses don’t write themselves, and the guy has been through a lot the last five years – ending his longtime partnership with El-P and the now defunct Def Jux Records, losing his close friend and fellow artist Camu Tao to cancer, moving from NY to San Francisco, and his marriage and subsequent divorce. These life changing events, coupled with his decision to fully produce Skelethon (something he’s never done before) and the release of his collaborative project with Rob Sonic Hail Mary Mallon, make the gap understandable.
While it will be impossible for Aesop’s reputation as a producer to ever near his rep as a lyricist, his stellar work behind the boards not only sets the mood throughout the album, but allows him to get into a comfort zone that finds him more in touch with his conflicted emotions than he’s ever been. None Shall Pass saw Aesop really come into his own as a conceptual song writer, and he ups the ante on Skelethon by creating a series of songs that are incredibly familiar and relatable, yet completely foreign territory for rap music as a whole. His beats may lack the melodic subtlety and variety that is the hallmark of his longtime collaborator Blockhead, but the cohesive feel and a great attention to detail is evident throughout. Rock’s decision to create YouTube description videos for every song is a great decision that reveals an artist who, behind all the masked meanings and cryptic couplets, ultimately wants to be understood. That’s not to say that these short clips will allow a casual listener to pick up on everything that Aesop lays out, but they at least give a foundation that puts you in the right frame of mind to absorb the album’s prodigious presence.
Upon first listen “ZZZ Top” and “Cycles To Gehenna” immediately stand out. Both songs feature hard hitting, nuanced beats that are among the best Aesop has crafted as a producer and allow him to showcase a variety of flows that he’s perfected over the years. The visceral “ZZZ Top” features three separate tales of teenage musical rebellion and the most fluid, impressive rapping of Aes’s career. “Cycles To Gehenna” is the point where you first start to get a feel for the album. A fully developed concept track, Rock explores how something dangerous like riding a motorcycle at high speeds can have a calming effect on the human mind, ending the first verse with the chilling line, “here’s how a great escape goes when you can’t take your dead friends names out your phone”. It’s not necessarily the concepts Aesop tackles, but the way he attacks them. He puts an enormous amount of work into every song and his specific word usage shows how hard he tries to accurately capture his thoughts.
Aesop has alluded to his childhood in several songs throughout his career, but he has a few songs on Skelethon that capture specific memories of his own upbringing in a way I’ve never heard before. “Grace” is a brilliant song that has Aesop recalling a time in his life many of us can relate to, him having to sit at the dinner table until he finished his vegetables. On the song’s chorus Rock speaks as his brother telling the neighborhood kids looking for Aes why he can’t come out and play, “Oh he can’t, he in the kitchen pouting and terrified of a plant”. Juxtaposed against “Grace” is “Saturn Missles”, a song about one of the simple joys of youth, fireworks. Aesop’s nervous pitter-pat beat sets the perfect tempo for his ode to that time in your life when blowing your G.I. Joes to smithereens with bottle rockets was the thing to do. “Racing Stripes” explores the carefree adolescent years when boys often get experimental with haircuts, specifically extreme styles involving clippers. Rock even details his friend Camu’s adult method of using self-inflicted bad haircuts to help pay the rent.
In addition to his unique takes on his own childhood, Aes spends a lot of time investigating how he fits into the world around him, specifically to nature and his relationship with animals. Two of the shortest but most striking songs on Skelethon are “Ruby ’81” and “Homemade Mummy”. “Ruby ‘81” is the tale of a little girl saved from drowning in a pool by the family dog while her parents party in the back yard. The song cleverly blurs the line between man and beast, asking who is truly more aware and shows how much we can take for granted. “Homemade Mummy” offers Rock’s instructions on how to mummify your dead pet, as well as his metaphorical take on mummification’s process of removing the brain and organs but leaving the heart in place, stating “you could learn a lot from a mummy”. On the last verse of the radioactive song “1,000 O’Clock” Aesop reacts to an unexplained sea lion exodus from a San Francisco pier. He explains the animals’ flight with the line “maybe it’d feel more majestic and less fatty if a 12 year old wasn’t beaning it with salt water taffy every 5 fucking seconds, sounds like your basic, liberating moment of collective “fuck fame” shit.” Whether Aesop’s opinion is right or not doesn’t matter, his ability to relate to all the varied life forms around him and draw parallels to his own life exposes a ‘think outside the box’ mentality that permeates all aspects of his work.
Skelethon closes with a dynamic 1-2 in “Tetra” and “Gopher Guts”. “Tetra” is a display of lyrical force that becomes more pointed as the song progresses. The line “out of sorts, out of water, suicidal tetra fish, who stood by the conviction in his “we should be together less, forevermore, before we are the severed heads of civil war” ” sounds like a look back at a relationship that became too claustrophobic and overwhelming and sees Rock again comparing himself to an animal, this time a fish out of water. “Gopher Guts” is a perfect contrast to the ‘no holds barred’ approach of “Tetra” and is as honest and emotional of a rap song as I will ever hear. Aesop expresses confusion about the disconnect between himself and his past and on the first couple verses before spilling his guts on the third verse and blaming all of his problems on his own personality/decisions. The verse’s harsh character assassination is hard to listen to, but it’s not your typical ‘woe is me’ emo sentiment. Aesop explains in the “Gopher Guts” description video that because of his numerous ‘temper tantrum’ songs on the album, “Gopher Guts” was a necessary way for him to be utterly honest with himself and his anti-social, self-destructive behavior.
Aesop Rock has had a magnificent career, but Skelethon is his finest hour to this point. It is an album without precedent, and another example of the top shelf artistry that hip hop has proved capable of in 2012. It should serve as no surprise to anyone who has been reading my reviews this year that while younger rappers may dominate the charts, there is a large group of MC’s over 30 that not only have no intention of putting the mic down, but are determined to keep the classic album format alive. For me as a listener to hear an MC like Aesop Rock make his best album at the age of 36 is an incredible feeling and a great sign for an artist that never seems to stop improving. Stream the album via YouTube or purchase a copy from Fifth Element.
Written by John Bugbee