Music: Aesop Rock’s ‘Skelethon’

AESOP Rock has been a mainstay in the San Francisco hip-hop scene now for nearly 15 years. He seems to have become one of those artists who skates so close to stardom but never allows fame to take over his artistic impulses. On his latest album, Skelethon,  his first solo record for six years, Aesop returns with more vitality than ever to reclaim the crown of an underground scene he once ruled. Yet Skelethon is an album filled with regret and melancholy, as it looks at the time leading up to this album, a time in which his best friend died and his marriage fell apart.

It’s easy to note that this is an Aesop record, his heavily lyrical flow still moving at such a speed that every time you listen to the song you can pick up on new things, little bursts of wordplay that delight and tease the ears.  In many ways his flow has never sounded better, displaying a fervent energy but intense focus that makes every word feel like it was planned and pored over. On ‘Racing Stripes’, he appears as a man from whom the rhymes flow so constantly that you wonder if he can stop.  The loose, manic nature of his early recordings has been replaced by a more mature, thoughtful artist approaching the position of an elder statesman but terrified of that position defining him as having peaked.

The production values equally are some of the most advanced that Aesop has ever produced, if not some of the freshest you’ll hear using a variety of sample and styles to create a kaleidoscopic musical collage that perfectly complements the album’s macabre themes. For instance, on album centrepiece ‘Crows 1’ and ‘Crows 2’, the backing track moves from furious backbeats to a pensive piano riff before taking us out with a distorted Latin-infused guitar coda. It is the kind of musical invention that is thrilling but entirely unique. It sets out Aesop as someone not just doing what he does, but truly being the master at it.

What truly defines this album is the defiant sense of humour behind it all. For a long time, Aesop has essentially been creating hip-hop that is opposed to the standardised ideas of the genre. He creates work that is an equivalent to David Lynch, at once surreal, brilliant and self-aware enough to be playfully amusing.  On ‘ZZZ Top’, he delivers a sermon on the scene that he rose up through and watched fall apart as he declares:

‘Blacken her technicolor telecaster. Lecture at a faster rate, The class was making them develop backwards, It would appear you spelled out all the answers’.

Yet as is often a complaint on records of this length, at 17 songs and nearly an hour long, not every track is a classic. Towards the end, the album begins to waver and it is unclear as to whether it will bow out or fade away. Tracks such as ‘Saturn Missiles’, whilst not unlistenable, contain a notable dip in excitement in comparison to the likes of lead single ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. Luckily the album recovers for what is possibly its crowning glory, the gut-punch that is final track ‘Gopher Guts’, a miniature masterpiece that shows that hip -hop can be inventive, exhilarating, hilarious and heart-breaking all at once.

This is an album that proves rap matures with age, that it can respond to tragedy but it doesn’t have to be murky or mawkish. It is truly an incredible piece on work and can be summarised with no better words than those that end it:

‘I told them “you will grow to be something dynamic and impressive; you are patient, you are gallant you are festive.” Then I let them go…Oh.’