Once upon a time, I couldn’t stand Aesop Rock. This wasn’t something I was eager to say out loud in public. I still bought his records, because if you cared about the idea of cerebral underground rap, you had to buy his records; it was a requirement. But I would sit there listening, brow all creased, trying to focus, trying to untangle what the fuck this guy was talking about, before throwing up my hands in exasperation. Aesop had a reputation as being this beautiful thinker, but aside from the odd vivid and quotable line (“life’s not a bitch, life is a beautiful woman,” etc.), he mostly seemed to traffic in garbled word salad that either meant nothing or meant things that I wasn’t smart enough to understand. He reminded me of the guy at the party who won’t stop talking about books you haven’t read, who feels like he’s on a mission to make you feel dumb. And he’d dance around his clanking, claustrophobic beats rather than locking in. Once in 2002, on a whim, I went to see him and El-P do a show in Baltimore, and I walked away even more annoyed: “I paid $14 to get in, and these guys can’t even rap on-beat?”
I kept trying to figure out what he was talking about, but that was the wrong approach. The thing about Aesop Rock is that he’s about the pure joy of language. Sometimes, the sounds take precedence over the actual meaning. There’s no logical thread to follow. There’s only this grisly-voiced weirdo, throwing syllables up against the wall and artfully dodging them when they bounce back. You don’t listen to understand. You listen to get lost. And if you listen like that, Aesop Rock is doing some of the best work of his career right now.
Around this time last year, Aesop released Lice a free-download EP that he made in collaboration with the Queens rapper Homeboy Sandman, an artist for whom I’d never made a whole lot of time. (Homeboy Sandman always seemed like a bit of a self-serious over-thinker, and I was mostly just annoyed that he’d taken another rapper’s name and put “Homeboy” in front of it. The other Sandman was the worst rapper in the Clipse’s Re-Up Gang crew, which means he was still a very good rapper.) Lice was an immediate blast. These guys were clearly enjoying the hell out of the mere act of rapping together, of picking up on each other’s goofy-ass ideas and feeding off of each other’s energy. There was no grand, unifying concept to Lice. They weren’t trying to push the artform forward. They were just having fun, and it mattered. On one song, “Katz,” they were just telling the world what cats had better do, as in: “Cats had better not smoke inside the igloo / Cats had better not fart when they girl is the big spoon.” On another, “Get A Dog,” they rapped over an extremely recognizable sample of Linkin Park’s “One Step Closer.” It was a light, playful, joyous record, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Maybe the problem was me. Maybe I hadn’t been paying enough attention. But this year, with the solo albums that both of them released after Lice, both Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman sounded reenergized and reengaged. On The Impossible Kid, Aesop went deep into his childhood memories and told more linear, concrete stories than I could remember hearing from him. (I loved the bit on “Blood Sandwich” about being a teenager and trying to go see Ministry live.) Meanwhile, on his own Kindness For Weakness, Homeboy Sandman seemed to rely on his flair for silliness as much as his twisty intelligence. “Talking (Bleep),” a goofy novelty song about people who talk so much that it sounds like gibberish, was a particular favorite. So: Either these two guys both discovered new inspiration by working with each other, or they made such good music while working together that I had to pay better attention. Either way, I was pretty fucking psyched when Lice Two: Still Buggin’ came out.
Lice Two is, if anything, even goofier and lower-stakes and more fun than its predecessor. It’s a free download once again, which is key. It’s certainly good enough to be worth money, and the two rappers are printing up a non-free vinyl version of it. But maybe these two decidedly non-mixtape rappers, in making what essentially amounts to a mixtape, are able to access some part of their brain that’s harder to reach when they’re making music that’s explicitly for purchase. Here, while there are still plenty of byzantine lyrical puzzles, they’re mostly just talking shit, maybe trying to make each other laugh. Aesop’s best line: “I’ve pissed at every terrifying truck stop in the country / I’ll piss on your pickup truck for absolutely nothing.” Homeboy Sandman’s best line: “I want a dimepiece that smells as good as McDonald’s fry grease that isn’t always criticizing my beats.” Even the throwaway bits are impeccably worded and deeply strange: “I’m rocking for my ilk who started crying before they bothered spilling milk,” “I walk like a D-Day sim / You walk like a deveined shrimp, simp.”
None of it is revelatory. None of it will reinvent underground rap or open up a new career door for either of these guys. But in a very different way, this reminds me of an all-time personal favorite, Paul Wall and Chamillionaire’s 2002 collaborative album Get Ya Mind Correct. Now: Paul Wall and Chamillionaire obviously don’t have much in common with Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman. But when you consider that they’re working in vastly different mediums — underground Texan rap vs. wordy and intricate New York backpack-rap — their aims are pretty much the same. They’re looking for clever ways to talk fly shit. Paul Wall and Chamillionaire both became way less interesting when they stopped doing that. Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman have proven that they can both get serious in powerful ways. But there’s still no substitute for a good shit-talk session, and they’ve just given us another great one. I’m already looking forward to Lice Three.
1. Sammus – “Weirdo” (Feat. Homeboy Sandman)
Hey, this guy again! Homeboy Sandman’s most conversational flow makes a great complement for this woozy, DIY outsider-anthem song, and I love the fact that a DIY punk label like Don Giovanni is now putting out a perfectly credible underground rap record like this.
2. Audio Push – “Play Action” (Feat. Hit-Boy)
This California duo started out making jerk music, and they’ve kept that frosty minimalism while branching out into effortless, breezy shit-talking club-rap. I wish I could bottle up the confidence they display on a song like this.
3. Conway & Guilty Simpson – “Vega Bros”
Conway, from Buffalo, and Guilty Simpson, from Detroit, are both hard-nosed no-frills working-class bruisers, and both of them know how to sound smart and hard at the same time. They’re a natural pairing, and they get bonus points for acknowledging, via song title, the shared Tarantino universe.
4. Ab-Soul – “Huey Knew” (Feat. Da$h)
Until very recently, Ab-Soul looked like TDE’s resident underachiever. But on songs like this and “Really Doe,” he is back to breathing dense, knotty, paranoiac, fast-rapping fire.
5. Lil Wayne & Gucci Mane – “Oh Lord”
We no longer live in a world where Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane jump on a track together and something like “Steady Mobbin” comes out. But given the inevitable decay of time, a collab like this is still pretty fucking good.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— jasmin (@jasmncollier) October 3, 2016