Review: Kevin Tappin
“Dense” is easily one of the most common words used to describe the pace at which Aesop Rock’s Ian Bavitz raps. To offer some perspective, there are actually fewer words in this review than his song “ZZZ Top.” That pace, believe it or not, is more relentless than ever on his latest release. It comes out as a wall of words and if you get caught up on the imagery too long, you’re libel to miss the next point. That approach often feels too scatterbrained to gain much perspective from it other than a few key lines, but Aes is focused this time around. With Skelethon, his style is honed. He finds a balance between his hectic rapping and its wildly imaginative content that comprises his best effort since Labor Days.
The cast surrounding Aesop Rock this time around is almost nonexistent. After having some albums carry a slew of features, anywhere from the usual suspects from the old Definitive Jux label to the left-field verse on “Coffee” by John Darnielle, his features are left most notably to Kimya Dawson, who appears on only two tracks of the album’s fifteen. Also absent, for the first time since Aesop’s debut Music for Earthworms, is producer Blockhead. Aes instead produced the album himself, and to great effect. The beats throughout Skelethon are gritty and percussive, generating a great atmosphere within which those dense lines thrive. Songs such as single “Zero Dark Thirty” become engrossing and easier to follow. Logic fails to explain this outside of saying that Aesop Rock has studied well his own style and built a home for it.
After the first several tracks cultivate this style, “Ruby ‘81” enters as an absolute showstopper. Rapped primarily over an electronic hum, one of the shortest tracks on Skelethon marries beautifully his whirlwind of imagery with his penchant for storytelling. In under two minutes, Aesop details a near-death experience of a toddler on a holiday evening. The hum builds as the story unfolds, and when all is well, the tension dissipates as the listener is left scrambling to piece together the events that led to that moment.
In an interview from May [link], Aesop Rock admitted to an increasing isolation. He claims to have done so to an unhealthy extent, and that kind of introversion can be seen in “Gopher Guts.” In the final verse, he does what any lonely person does and self-destructs. Every line is an assault on one characteristic or moral flaw: “I have been a terrible communicator prone to isolation over sympathy for devils.” Juxtaposed with his praise for various animals in the chorus (“You will grow to be something dynamic and impressive / You are patient, you are gallant, you are festive.”), we find him worried about having destroyed himself by the faults of his past and manically attempting to correct himself.
After five years since None Shall Pass, it’s given Aesop Rock a lot to say. The frequency with which death is mentioned and the self-damaging characters and ideals reflect the time spent away from his solo work. It sounds like it’s been a rough time, but even that isolation he spoke of is a part of what makes this album such a standout. Through all the grit and death, he’s come out shining.