Aesop Rock None Shall Pass

[Def Jux; 2007]

Styles: underground hip-hop of the definitively juxtaposed variety
Others: El-P, Atmosphere, MF Doom

Aesop Rock gets unduly criticized. What kind of treatment is that for a guy whose debut album is comparable to Nas’ Illmatic? Both masterworks for their brevity, NYC environs, and unchecked hunger, Appleseed is an infallible testament. Don’t tell me it’s an EP either. It's eight cohesive and tailored songs -- an album under ten songs does not automatically make an EP, my friends. But if Aesop Rock was at fault for anything over the years (aside for his Stereopathic Soulmanure of an album, Music For Earthworms), it was for his loss of naiveté. “Not knowing” is the best thing an artist can claim, and the innocent phenom Aesop Rock was replaced with the brute force forager Aesop Rock. No longer the failed painter spitting a couple of verses to the wind to see what will stick against the loft shutters, Aesop became a studio savvy, industry savvy, abilities savvy titan who has since indicated no signs of letting up.

Despite the criticisms he’s gathered and the flat-out inappropriate questioning of his “nonsensical” lyrics, this creature — this, often unshaven behemoth — is what classicist hip-hop listeners call dope, and Aesop Rock has always had two essentially dope characteristics: his voice and his lyrics. The man is a motor-mouth jawing jabberwocky, at times with three plumbs in his cheeks. What he does with words is incredible. He hurls them onto jungle gyms, misshapes them, and contorts them around bars and banisters, only to reconnect them into garbled syllables with poetic devices galore. That voice commands — so crass and sarcastic. It can crush leviathans. It’s a god voice — a sneeze from Zeus, a guffaw from Buddha. Bottom line: Who cares if the lyrics don’t make any orderly, logical, or even grammatical sense? They are of a boorish beauty. It hits you in the pit of your stomach. It’s dope, stunod. Make your own meaning.

When we judge the work of Ian Bavitz, we don’t judge its ability to entertain (because we know it will), but we judge for how long that entertainment can sustain. Does it ever arrive at the point of boredom? The mind can only take Aesop’s barrage of walloping words and gravelly groan for so long. The brain eventually turns to mush. And, unfortunately, things get rather thick on None Shall Pass. Aesop Rock isn’t one to offer reprieves. There’s no “I’ll Be OK” or “Daylight” on this album — no room for air. The beats sound drawn from the same beleaguered vein.

As his verbiage blurs, one can take into account the beats — beats like robots copulating. And, as always, the perfect element is added at the precise time to establish a definite mood, something Aesop and Blockhead have ostensibly mastered. Another staple is the decidedly New York basslines that sound straight from 52nd Street and Charles Mingus’ flunky fingers. Aesop’s beats are as colossal as Sonny Rollins. And he shares. The egalitarian he is, Aesop invites the usual guests to help keep the lawn cleared: Cage, Breezly Brewin, El-P, Rob Sonic -- even, surprisingly, John Darnielle. The Mountain Goats man sings on “Coffee,” and both his voice and presence assimilate well enough to avoid awkwardness.

Essentially, it's the effects of Aesop's modesty that keeps him afloat above some of his equally skilled contemporaries. (This, in addition to the dope factor, more than makes up for the moment when the album overwhelms and shapes into a part-primal/part-industrial drone.) He’s not so self-aware of his gifts that he becomes over-confident and cocky. Such an attitude can mean death, or worse, mediocrity. Aesop remains truly humble. It’s no act or front. His modesty allows him the right to address himself in the third person for a vocal cord-fraying refrain (“Knock ‘em out the box, Aes/ Knock ‘em out the box”), put Pluto as a planet on his shoulders, and sigh "hmm" while making it sound as ill as Kool G Rap with a nasal drip. Aesop Rock leaves our ears swollen shut: some of us grin and bear it, knowing it’s well worth the side-effects; others insist it just doesn’t make any sense.

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