Aesop Rock’s New Album Is A Dizzy Vision Quest
Summer 2002. I’m at someone’s house some early evening, drinking. I’ve just moved back to town, and I don’t know anybody that well, but nobody seems to mind me being there. (Maybe I’m dating one of their friends? I forget.) One guy announces that he’s going to the Ottobar to see El-P and Aesop Rock, asks if anyone wants to come. The show costs $14. I’ve got maybe $30 in my checking account. I say what the hell, let’s go. Then I spend the whole evening in a state of visible, brow-furrowed irritation.
These twp guys, the music press has told me, are the future of underground rap. But they mostly rap in clustered yammer-bursts, oblivious to their skronked-out beats, entirely too pleased with their own verbosity. The audience seems to be trying too hard to get into it, yelling “ohhhhh!” at lyrics about exporting metaphors to sweatshops. The whole thing feels terminally swaggerless. I go home that night, thinking I’d be twice as rich and incalculably less annoyed if I’d just stayed at somebody’s house, drinking.
Fast-forward 18 years. I don’t get to drink at near-strangers’ houses anymore, and El-P and Aesop Rock have made two of my favorite rap albums of the year. That’s me changing, but that’s them changing, too. After watching the flame burn out on his Def Jux indie empire, El-P regrouped, got together with the guy from “Snappin’ And Trappin'” and “The Whole World,” and remade himself as a bomb-throwing festival-rap star. Aesop Rock, meanwhile, seems to exist on his own aesthetic island, further finding new ways to explore his own fears and anxieties and longings. Both of them are rapping on-beat a whole lot more often, too.
This past Friday Aesop Rock released Spirit World Field Guide, his first proper solo album in more than four years. Aesop hasn’t exactly been quiet in that time. There’s been a lot of music. He made the series of Lice EPs with Homeboy Sandman. He did the score for Bushwick, a fun Dave Bautista Redbox action movie about Texan militia guys invading Brooklyn. Two years ago, Aesop teamed up with Tobacco on Malibu Ken, a very good collaborative LP. Just a few months ago, Aesop came out with a video-game soundtrack. But Spirit World Field Guide still feels like a major work — the kind of thing that takes years of careful consideration, of writing and rewriting.
On the Spirit World Field Guide intro, Aesop lays out the album’s theme in casually precise pilot-over-the-loudspeaker tones, letting us know that the album we’re about to hear will be “the ultimate companion for all modern supernatural tourism, as well as those potentially seeking more permanent residency.” Aesop claims that he’s been traveling the astral plane long enough to become an expert, to write a whole guidebook about it. On different songs from the album, Aesop raps about visits to Cambodia and Peru and Thailand, capturing sights and sensations in rich, textured, imaginative language: “Where shaman opt to zombify undocumented expats/ High and writing Ayuahasca letters back to Melmac.” (Is this the best ALF reference in rap history? I can’t think of a better one, and ALF references are the kind of thing that I tend to remember.)
But Aesop never sticks too closely to that overarching concept. Instead, Spirit World Field Guide is an internal journey, an exploration of one man’s crippling dread. Aesop has been on a linguistic bender for more than two decades, and he’s more likely to fire off obfuscatory verbiage than to just talk about what he’s talking about. (That’s not a complaint, since the verbiage is often great: “Most of my visitors request that I be tied to a chair/ I wear the skin of my detractors, maybe try not to stare.”) But the shortest songs from the album are evocative little sketches that let us know exactly where he’s at. On one, Aesop rhapsodizes about the state of his chronic back pain. On another, he imagines what it would be like to be eaten by insects. The best of them is “Dog At The Door,” an 88-second paranoid fantasy about believing every sound outside the door must be some kind of trap.
Spirit World Field Guide is a whole album about shitty states of mind, and about the desperate search for ways to navigate those shitty states of mind. But the album also has a real sense of exhilaration just in how Aesop bends language around, forcing it to do what he wants. Here, for example, is Aesop on solitude: “I use a phony voice when I’m yelling ‘nobody’s home’/ I’m a liar, but I wouldn’t say I’m wrong.” Here he is on washed middle-age boho existence: “I bump Raising Hell, I make raisin bread/ Raised on wolf’s milk and Eraserhead.” Here he is on an artist’s rootless life: “I grew up writing riddles under bridges in New York/ Now I travel like a highwayman who whispers to his horse/ Sharing stories of the winter, trying to trigger something pure.”
Some of Aesop’s concerns aren’t existential. Some of them are simple. There is, for example, the difficulty of catching bad insomnia in an unfamiliar hotel room: “It’s been a long and bitter break-up with the science of sleep/ I’m through the lobby on my stomach with a knife in my teeth.” And then there’s the problem of being too tall, a set of pain-in-the-ass logistical issues that most of you tiny chumps will never even have to contemplate: “Six foot a million, nothing off the rack fit him/ I dress like fingers of light through black nimbus.” (Aesop’s only like 6’4″, though. I don’t know what the fuck he’s complaining about.)
Spirit World Field Guide is about as solitary and personal as a rap album can be. Back in 2002, Aesop seemed like one part of a whole underground-rap ecosystem, albeit a particularly idiosyncratic part. But these days, he’s a whole world unto himself. Aesop is the only rapper on Spirit World Field Guide, and he’s also the only producer. A few other musicians — Hanni El Khatib, DJ Zone, longtime collaborators Grimace Federation — add instrumentation, but this is insular, auteurist music. The sound is warm and lush and genuinely funky — tumbling breakbeats, reverbed-out guitar lines, humming prog-rock synth-drones. The basslines make me think Aesop has been listening to Black Sabbath lately, and his habit of name-checking death-metal bands does nothing to make me think I’m wrong.
On these tracks, Aesop sounds comfortable even when he’s rapping about intense discomfort. His flow has become easier and more virtuosic over years. He’s learned to stop cramming in too many syllables, to let himself become part of the beat. The lyrics are dense and layered, but you don’t have to crouch over your speaker with a pen and a notepad, trying to diagram these things. You can just let the album ride, taking in these brilliant little writerly turns where they snag your ear. Aesop wasn’t always trying to make music that floated like this. For years, I felt like he was actively working against it. There’s real pleasure in hearing him make something as straight-up musical as this.
At that show in 2002, I was wrong. I was looking for certain things in rap music, and Aesop Rock and El-P were not supplying those things. That pissed me off. With someone like Aesop Rock, the art only works when you approach it on its own terms. It took me a while to fully understand that on anything other than a theoretical level. But Aesop Rock has changed, too. Spirit World Field Guide is not a compromised vision; it’s an album that sounds and works like nothing else. But it’s also an album that meets you halfway, that invites you in. At this point, I’d kill to be back in the Ottobar, watching Aesop Rock do what he does. I’d appreciate it more. He might, too.
1. 2 Chainz – “Can’t Go For That” (Feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
Best use of a Hall & Oates sample since Pimp C flipped “Sara Smile” on UGK’s “Feds In Town” in 1994. Also, the video has a whole lot of fun clowning André 3000, which, if we’re being honest, is something we should all do more often.
2. DJ Scheme – “Soda” (Feat. Cordae & Ski Mask The Slump God)
This thing bounces. It’s easily the hardest that Cordae has sounded since he dropped the YBN from his name.
3. Cdot Honcho – “Spaghetti” (Feat. Valee)
Cdot Honcho’s gun is longer than it takes his bitch to get ready, the kind of flex that might send you on a mystical journey through time and space. Also, Cdot Honcho will turn somebody’s skull into spaghetti, which is quite an image. More people should shoot videos on loading docks. It looks hard.
4. Wheezy – “Guillotine” (Feat. Future & Yo Gotti)
Allons enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé. I don’t understand why this soundtrack throwaway is more hypnotic than Future’s whole new album with Lil Uzi Vert, but it won’t matter once the revolution comes.
5. Kevin Gates – “Give It All I Got”
Sometimes, Kevin Gates’ voice just sounds like it’s falling through empty space.