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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.

Connect with Aesop Rock via Facebook | Twitter

Written by John Bugbee


EP Review: Spitta Andretti (Curren$y) & Harry Fraud ‘Cigarette Boats’

After releasing his official major label solo debut The Stoned Immaculate last month, inexhaustible New Orleans rapper Curren$y, aka Spitta, is back with Cigarette Boats, an EP produced by Harry Fraud (the man behind Smoke Dza’s stellar album Rugby Thompson).  In my review of Rugby Thompson, I had some less than flattering words for The Stoned Immaculate, Curren$y’s first real stab at a crossover album.  Curren$y delivered a solid batch of verses as usual, but the random big name guest appearances and glossy, overproduced beats put a bad taste in my mouth and left me wondering if Curren$y’s days of making elegant playa/pothead records with his rapper friends, and producers like Ski Beats and The Alchemist, were over.  Curren$y’s smooth style usually made up for his limited subject matter, but his most recent material had me wondering if his lack of substance had caught up with him.

Not long after Rugby Thompson was released, Curren$y and Fraud announced they would be teaming up for a collaborative EP.  Not only did the combo make sense, as Spitta’s appearance on Rugby Thompson was one of the album’s highlights, but it was a return to the one rapper/one producer format that has delivered all of my favorite material from Curren$y.  I immediately had visions of a repeat of Spitta’s amazing EP with The Alchemist from 2011, Covert Coup.  While it would be tough to match the creative peak that Covert Coup climbed to, Harry Fraud’s recent track record gave me confidence that Cigarette Boats could be a special EP.  While Cigarette Boats clocks in at less than 15 minutes and only has five songs, not a second is wasted and both Harry Fraud and Curren$y contribute some of the best music of their careers.  It almost feels as if Curren$y anticipated a degree of backlash from his major label debut and rushed to get a project out there to remind his longtime fans that he hadn’t forgotten about them.

Right from the jump Curren$y is in vintage form, laying one of his best verses on the opener “Leaving The Dock”.  Curren$y’s laid back confidence and smooth delivery makes lines that might sound boring coming from other rappers stick in your head like mantras- “Fools hear our verses and rewrite that shit they scribblin’, bitches see my bitches and consider trying women”.  Harry Fraud’s breezy synth beat rides out after Spitta’s verse and gives you a feel for the Vice City like vibes to come.  Fraud’s stretched vocal sample and intricate drum pattern set the stage perfectly for Spitta and guest Styles P to trade wordplay rich verses on “WOH”.  Styles shows he still has it, rapping “You ain’t real high, you mid-level/ smokin’ on that shit we let the kids peddle/ I made a couple ends off what those kids peddle/ Speak on my name wrong, you’ll see those kids’ metal”.  On the wish-it-was-longer “Biscayne Bay” Curren$y glorifies material excesses over one of Harry Fraud’s best ever beats.  Fraud recently spent some time with Rick Ross in Miami making beats, which makes me wonder if some of the tracks on this EP were born out of those sessions.  Every track has an 80’s Miami feel without utilizing obvious Scarface samples or bordering on the cliché.  Fraud’s resume is getting more and more high profile, but it is niche projects Cigarette Boats that are making him one of my favorite producers around.

Curren$y closes the EP with a collaboration with Smoke Dza on the plush playa anthem “Mirrors” followed by the late night burner “Sixty-Seven Turbo Jet”.  The fully evolved “Sixty-Seven Turbo Jet” compares Curren$y’s grind as an artist to that of a successful hustler and features the addictive chorus, “Money in the floor case they kick in the door, Saran wrapped in the wall case they bring them dogs”.  Curren$y ends “Sixty-Seven Turbo Jet” with the telling line- “The one’s that’s sleeping on it don’t deserve it”, an indicator that while Spitta may have signed to a major label, he doesn’t plan to abandon his roots, or his fans that have been along for the ride.  Download/Stream Cigarette Boats for free below.

Connect with Curren$y via Facebook | Twitter

Written by John Bugbee


Album Review: Twin Shadow ‘Confess’

When I first saw George Lewis Jr. perform as Twin Shadow, it was on a freezing cold January Saturday at Over The Rhine’s MOTR Pub after the release of 2010’s critically acclaimed Forget.  Coincidentally, this was also my first show at what is now my favorite music hot spot after moving back to Cincinnati a few months earlier.  At the time, I had given the albums a few spins and thought it was pretty good, but really wasn’t entirely blown away.  I found the fact that the album was released in November fitting as it seemed to be more thought provoking winter pop.  Even the album title inspires visions of cold and darkness.  That is until the brash Lewis strutted onto the stage with a rocks glass of whiskey and an outfit of denim, a black leather vest, and his hair swooped up like some 80’s pop star.  In person, these songs about heartbreak and getting over someone were something more; they had a heartbeat, a life of their own.  These were honest to god life vibes, like Donnie Darko wormholes connecting everyone together that night.  Needless to say, I’ve been a tad bigger fan ever sense.

Confess, the second LP release by George Lewis Jr. under the same stage name, is not Forget.  There’s a great cockiness, first evident from the album cover featuring a solo shot of George looking like a “Beat It” music video extra, to this album that is new.  There’s some Price feel, some Bowie, some MJ…this is 80’s new wave and pop music sent to 2012 in Doc Brown’s DeLorean.  And it’s done to perfection.  While Forget had that breakup album feel to it, this album feels more like George is chasing whom, or whatever, he wants with that previously mentioned cockiness closer resembling confidence as you get deeper into the track list.  The opener “Golden Light” sets the stage for this new feeling as the song continuously builds the chorus of “some people say there’s good in life, you’re the golden light?  And if I chase after you does it mean that’s it true?”  The second track “You Can Call Me On” resonates with the chase and perils associated with trying to get someone back with George pleading with lines like ”You call me on to give it up, I give it up for you” and “I don’t give a damn about your dream, a whole world that is falling at the seems girl, that’s what it’s supposed to do, it’s my only way back to you it seems”.

The first single, “Five Seconds” features George’s superb vocals at their finest as he screams out over a poppy back beat before he breaks it back down again and contemplating the closeness of young love with “Run My Heart”.  It’s around the following song entitled “Beg For The Night” when you really begin to notice how simplistic the songs have become in terms of guitar arrangements.  Whereas Forget seems to rely on a heavy and complicated does of the strings to drive the songs, the first five songs on this album allow his voice to set the tone.  Luckily, it’s not completely gone as “Beg For the Night”, my personal favorite track on the album, brings the edgy sound we all come to expect to the album.  “When the Movie’s Over” is another standout towards to end as a beautiful melancholy, ballad-like jam.

As a whole, Confess is a statement album that combines the emotion and feeling George Lewis Jr. brought on his debut work with a new confidence in his vocal strength.   The brash Brooklynite has combined the sounds of the artists he loved growing up with into his own personal brand of music.  You won’t hear many albums like Confess this year, and you certainly won’t hear many better.  Confess is available today via 4AD.

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Written by Greg Dahman