Release Date: Jul 10, 2012
Record label: Rhymesayers Entertainment
Genre(s): Rap, Pop/Rock
It first hit me that this record needed my undivided attention just as it was about to finish. I'd been trying to decipher the lyrics when all of a sudden the cryptic choruses and abstraction just stopped, leaving a passage of direct, simple words in their void. In the penultimate verse of the record, we get to see the man behind the metaphors laid bare and it's heartbreakingly honest.
"I am so completely off the goddamn grid/ It's not a question of addressing me, it's 'What do these symbols under the dresser mean?'" -Aesop Rock, "Crows 1" Hack faith healers, stained glass Saint Peter's, black rainbows, ruby tides, jarred brains, magpies, hoarders, and allied forces licking zigzags while being dragged by horses. Antiquated gentlemen outlaws reduced to a Ferris wheel of vitriol. Miniature Raquel Welches, ghost crabs, butchers in bloody aprons, splintering motordrome walls of death, homemade mummies, bats, crypts, and Chuck Taylors with "Zulu" bombed on them in Buckle Font.
After last year’s rise of a young fashion-obsessed upstart from Harlem with a coincidentally homonymous name, Aesop Rock will have to work hard to reclaim the associative power of which his name has been robbed. The five years since his last release has seen the collapse of Def Jux (temporary or not), spilling its active roster and forcing Aesop to seek refuge in the interim at Rhymesayers, one of the last bastions for like-minded alternative hip-hop. Skelethon is a statement; other than a few guests who stop by to beef up the instrumentation, this is an Aesop affair, a vehement demonstration of personal dissatisfaction, with the key word here being “personal.
Like anyone, artists go through dark times, times when everything seems against you, which for Aesop Rock meant the death of a friend, the end of a marriage, and his longtime label, Def Jux, going "on hiatus" while label boss El-P figured things out. That's three fastball strikes and one underground abstract rapper spending five years in the dugout feeling alone, depressed, and betrayed by his own karma, but Aesop is no ordinary hip-hopper, and Skelethon is no ordinary recovery album. Lead single "Zero Dark Thirty" is all the unexpected dark chaos of life told in stream of consciousness, and then balled into a nutshell, seeking medicine and then escaping your ills hobo style ("Lanacane, band aids, mandrake root/Bindle on a broomstick, pancaked makeup and shoes") while watching the new underground party from afar ("Choke-lore writers over boosted drums") as the Def Jux posse stalls and/or waits ("In the terrifying face of a future tongue/Down from a huntable surplus to one"), or something like that.
Aesop Rock, the verbose and vicious Ian Bavitz, initially rips into Skelethon—the production of “Leisureforce” is sharp and discomforting with raps about cheating death, pentagrams and sleepless nights. After that stellar opener, however, Bavitz sounds urgent, strained sometimes. The songs get muddier, the lyrics more unmoored and odd—there’s a song about a haircut and one about a deep fryer—and there’s not nearly enough of Aesop living up to his impressive talent.
It was more than a little surreal emailing a Rhymesayers publicist for a copy of Skelethon. One, because obviously Aesop Rock’s dungeon-dark mutterings were like the Socratic ideal form of Def Jux street-rap, but also because five years after None Shall Pass, the world’s skeptics began doubting if Ian Mathias Bavitz would ever start rapping again. A new family, a dead label, a litany of oddball sidetracks, and rumblings of personal strife and loss—you couldn’t really blame Aes for an impromptu quarter-life crisis.
Aesop Rock is one of few artists out that can take six years between records without too much trouble. For one, since 2006's None Shall Pass, he has given us production work with Murs and Atmosphere on Felt 3, plenty of great guest verses, Hail Mary Mallon (his project with Rob Sonic), and so on. More than that, though, it takes so long to unpack and figure out Rock's rapid-fire rhymes that you need a few years to work it all out.
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.
Aesop Rock has come a long way in the independent Rap game. After self-releasing his debut, Music for Earthworms, the Northport, New York native brought his brand of hyperintelligent rap to Mush Records via Float, and then spent a decade on Def Jux until the beloved label went on hiatus. Now, Aes Rizzle has found an appropriate home on independent staple Rhymesayers Entertainment, with Skelethon being his first release on the renowned label.
Hip-hop may be the most divisive genre in popular music, both inside and out. Artists and albums are constantly defined against each other by race, class, and, most of all, lyrical content. For nearly a decade, independent and underground hip-hop were so separated from the mainstream as to have their own system of influences and calling cards. While mainstream hip-hop still lives in the looming shadow of artists so unanimous they come in preset groups (Big and Pac, Dre and Snoop, Nas and Jay), what has now come to be known as underground hip-hop, on the other hand, has rappers like Aesop Rock, who would rather stand ever-present in the background than loom menacingly.
Some truly great MCs have served time in the New York experimental rap supergroup The Weathermen – the likes of Cage, Tame One and Yak Ballz are present members, and Copywrite and the late Camu Tao have passed through their ranks. By the same token, at least two truly terrible MCs, El-P (great producer and all that, but on the mic? PLEASE) and Vast Aire have made up the numbers, like weakling kids picked last for the football team. Aesop Rock is the group workhorse, in footy terms a capable holding midfielder of an MC, a solid 6/10 performer who is now bestowing upon us a solid 6/10 album in ‘Skelethon’, his sixth (for all you number six fans).
The digitisation of music consumption is either the best or the worst thing that could have happened to Aesop Rock. On the one hand, while hip-hop's free mixtape culture moves at lightning pace, Aesop's dense, lyrical mosaics can take months, even years, to digest. The sheer volume and availability of rap music in 2012 has made keeping up with it a daily struggle, let alone trying to form meaningful bonds with records.
San Francisco-based Aesop Rock makes uncompromising, polarizing hip-hop and you either connect to his cerebral verbal intensity or tune it out. His first record in five years explores isolation, emotional healing, and self discovery (“ZZZ Top”). The songs contain enough clever wordplay that he’ll have other MCs scurrying for a dictionary. At times, he’s allusive and elusive and, while the verbiage can be dazzling, it also can be obscure.
Aesop Rock, born Ian Bavitz, has always been one of those cerebral rappers, reciting rhymes that are less like straightforward, reality-based autobiography and more like abstract poetic stanzas. But with Skelethon, his first solo album in five years, Bavitz turns the focus on himself, making this one of his most personal records to date.Skelethon begins with “Leisureforce,” a song about living a reclusive lifestyle, something Bavitz is very accustomed to. The cleverly named “ZZZ Top” describes three young people, all defining themselves with words they carve into desks or shoes.
Rap that can join the unflinchingly candid with the unfalteringly compelling. Adam Kennedy 2012 When not claiming beloved artists in their prime, death's influence on popular music is more often a positive force to creativity. Exhibit #2,872: Skelethon, inspired by a less-than-sunny recent spell in the life of Ian Bavitz, aka New York-raised rapper Aesop Rock, during which his best friend perished and his marriage disintegrated.
While Aesop Rock produced Murs and Slug's collaboration, Felt 3: A Tribute to Rosie Perez, in 2009 and released his collaboration with Rob Sonic, Hail Mary Mallon's Are You Going to Eat That?, in 2011, it's still been five years since his last solo album, None Shall Pass. But don't expect a drastic change in direction. His first entirely self-produced album, Skelethon fits nicely amongst the El-P-inspired production of his Def Jux days, a more musical, disciplined evolution of Bazooka Tooth.