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.” No guest verses (though Kimya Dawson adds eerie vocals to “Crows 1”) and no solo guest production (a first) makes this his most intimate, individual release to date.
Aesop has tremendous control for a syllable-stuffer; he’s Kweli with restraint, knowing when to rein in the racehorse flow and slow down for emphasis, never loosening his grip long enough to stumble over the vigorous drum-driven beats, which — to the benefit of Aesop’s gruff narration — are simple and unobtrusive and angry and allow whatever he’s talking about at the moment (distaste for vegetables, his love for a donut shop) to sound not only compelling, but also hard. He’s thankfully through with stringing together disparate aphorisms, clever as they might have been, in favor of telling colorful stories with great precision. No other emcee is quite like him; revel in the advanced structure and diction of something like “ZZZ Top,” laugh when he compares a cruller to the Eucharist, shake your head in disbelief when he references the 70s space rock band Hawkwind.
For those who whine about the incomprehensibility of his lyrics, here he is in a series of videos willing to hold your hand through the breakdown of Skelethon’s 15 tracks. It’s surprising how a brief 30-word sketch of scenario can contextualize seemingly unintelligible lyrics to expose, despite some mystique-effacing, just how deceptively simple the subject matter is (even if disentangling individual lyrics can still be tricky).
What’s ironic is that this is the one Aesop record, apart from maybe Labor Days, that doesn’t need its themes delineated; its preoccupation with death — literal and figurative, and the concomitant attempt to deal with loss — is showcased boldly in the title and ghoulish skeleton of the album art. We’re treated to a maxim from the deceased Camu Tao, a previous member of The Weathermen whose death from cancer in 2008 likely contributed to the air of grief surrounding Skelethon, among songs about cemeteries, backyard drownings, and mummified cats.
After 14 tracks mostly dedicated to telling the stories of others, Aesop fixes his grizzled face firmly on the listener during “Gopher Guts” and, flexing first-person subjectivity, delivers a candid monologue addressing his various failures as a human being. It’s an unapologetically direct moment, as close to a cry for help as someone like Aesop is capable of, capping off an album full of indecision, alienation, and death. He’s able to accurately diagnose his own problems and willing to cut crude racing stripes into his hair until he solves them, if he can ever figure out how. Aimless aggression is a dead end, but at least it’s cathartic.