Aesop Rock Is Unstuck In Time
Aesop Rock first rapped over a Blockhead beat 24 years ago. At least, that was the first time that Aesop Rock rapped over a Blockhead beat on record. The Long Island rapper and the Manhattan beatmaker had become friends a few years earlier at Boston University. By the time Aesop self-released his 1997 debut album Music For Earthworms, Blockhead had already dropped out of college, though Aesop was still there. (He’d graduate a year later.) When Aesop made Music For Earthworms, he hadn’t yet become a name on the underground rap scene, and that underground rap scene — Stretch & Bobbito freestyles, 12″ singles sold at Fat Beats — wasn’t anywhere near as big as it would become a few years later. Aesop produced most of that album himself, but on the song “Plastic Soldiers,” he applied his darting, word-drunk flow to Blockhead’s mournfully stuttering violin loop.
Over the next few years, Aesop Rock became a kind of underground-rap star. I have this vivid memory of interviewing Cage in 2005 and of Cage musing that Aesop could go out on tour and then buy a house when he got back. The idea that underground rap could be a route to home ownership was essentially science fiction, but Aesop Rock had achieved that strange feat. On his ascent, Aesop kept rapping over Blockhead beats. To this day, the best-loved Aesop Rock track is probably “Daylight,” the dazed reverie at the heart of the 2001 album Labor Dayz. That song’s strange and beautiful jazz-loop beat is a Blockhead production.
For most people, underground rap isn’t exactly a sustainable career path. Usually, it’s a stepping stone to something else, whether that something else is overground rap or the working-stiff day-job world. (Underground rap has led other people to other places, too; Aesop’s former Definitive Jux labelmate RJD2, for instance, saw one of his old beats become the Mad Men theme music.) But 20 years after “Daylight,” both Aesop Rock and Blockhead remain in that underground rap world. As far as I know, it’s still the main source of income for both of them. Blockhead is still in New York, and he keeps making records; his collage album Space Werewolves Will Be The End Of Us All came out just a couple of months ago. Aesop Rock, a wandering soul, has dipped in and out of the public eye, but these days, he’s in productive mode. Last year, Aes released the fractured concept album Spirit World Field Guide, producing all the beats and rapping all the raps himself. It might be my favorite Aesop Rock album.
In recent years, Aesop Rock/Blockhead collaborations have grown less and less frequent. Last week, though, the two reunited to release Garbology, their first-ever full-on collaborative album. This wasn’t exactly the plan, but for Aesop Rock, there never is a plan. In the press release for Garbology, Aesop explains that he started work on the album this past January, when he was feeling unmoored over the death of a close friend: “The world got real weird during those months. I knew at some point I had to get back to making something. Make a beat. Draw a picture. Write. Just go. But the idea of making a beat felt like math homework, and drawing is just so hard. Writing is hard, too, but at some point I had to pick one.” So Aesop got Blockhead to make the beats, and he wrote and wrote and wrote.
In Garbology, I can hear plenty of sadness and anger and boredom and free-floating dread — feelings that, in different ways, have powered every Aesop Rock record since time immemorial. But Garbology doesn’t sound like a man forcing himself to write as a way to stave off depression. The writing is too alive for that. Aesop Rock has always been one of rap’s great linguistic thinkers, and there are turns of phrase on Garbology that I had to type out, just so that I could sit and look at them. Here, for example, is Aesop Rock bragging: “Aes loves all animals and plant life/ Songbirds eat from his hand, you goddamn right.” Here is Aesop Rock talking shit: “I wish you nothing but the gentle kiss of yellow piss/ I give you nothing but the number for my exorcist.” And here is Aesop Rock discussing some of the things that he likes and doesn’t like: “I like glassy lake water and old maps/ Tall tales with black sails and skull flags/ Cold lemonade and OG Golden Axe/ I don’t like to talk about the UFO crash.”
Both Aesop Rock and Blockhead have developed stylistically since they first started working together. Aesop raps more deliberately, finding new cadences even as he continues to map the crags of his own mental landscape. Blockhead is less drawn to traditional boom-bap production, more interested in deep grooves and cymbal-splashes and squelchy guitars. (As a producer, Aes is interested in many of those things, and if I didn’t know otherwise, I probably would’ve assumed that Aes produced Garbology himself.) Blockhead clearly understands Aesop Rock more than most people. Even as he nods back to classic rap signifiers — like the way the horn on “Legerdemain” seems to quote the oft-sampled riff from the Lafayette Afro Rock Band’s “Darkest Light” — he keeps things skronky and homemade for Aesop Rock. Parts of Garbology get so deep into junkyard blues that they remind me of latter-day Tom Waits, and I assume that’s how Aes wants it.
Despite those progressions, though, what really strikes me about Garbology is how it doesn’t exist in conversation with circa-now rap music at all. It mostly doesn’t acknowledge any rap music, except maybe Aesop’s own. Aes will occasionally throw out cryptic barbs at his old peers — “Good goddamn, good goddamn/ Every idol I ever met is a conman” — and frequent collaborator Homeboy Sandman shows up on one song. Mostly, though, Garbology is the work of someone who’s bowed out of the rat race and opted to live off on his own mental island. Many of its best lines are all about disappearing and embracing hermit status: “When every tree up in your Eden reek of dog piss/ You don’t need a reason to Knievel any drawbridge.” To hear Aesop tell it, his peers aren’t other rappers. They’re the animals he sees everyday: “I know every black crow in the city by its first name and its surname and its bird call and its birthday.”
Garbology gets its name from a certain archaeological science, from the idea that you can learn a whole lot about a society by studying its refuse. To hear Aesop Rock tell it, though, society itself is some kind of garbage, and he wants no part of it: “I hate praising net worth over legwork/ I hate ceding all power to the extroverts/ I find the current social architecture hell on earth/ We make shepherds and shadow ’em to the netherworld.” Instead of attempting to compete in a corroded game, Aesop simply dips, wearing his loser status as a badge of honor. He tells a whole story in one line: “Today, a mall cop told me I should get a life.” It’s not clear whether this is metaphorical or experiential, and it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the implication is clear. This shit is all fucked, and he’d rather be himself than this mall cop.
Aesop Rock doesn’t sound happy in his self-exile. Garbology is clearly the work of a man who’s not in a great mental place. Aesop is especially artful when he’s talking about his own depression: “Current mood bluer than a gummi shark/ I should probably learn to move around the color bar/ I should probably wear some jewelry made of human bone/ It adds a visual component to my ‘you should go’/ Thought-bubble generally jam-packed with dollar sign, exclamation point, ampersand, hash.” But I hear something romantic and enviable in his willingness to leave the world behind and chase his own thoughts instead.
Look: Last night, I paid $14.75 to see Eternals. I don’t know why I did it. I had proper warning. I knew it would be bad. It was worse than I thought. The reigning Best Director Oscar-winner made a movie about immortal beings who shaped the progress of human history at the behest of a godlike space-robot, and yet the end result wasn’t weird at all. It was a desultory parade of CGI gloop and pretty actors making mannequin faces at each other, robotically miming out a story that was apparently written by an algorithm. This shit fucking sucks, and any society that would produce it fucking sucks, too. Aesop Rock has the right idea. Why attempt to keep up with a popular culture that’s grown more lifeless and alienating with every tick of the cosmic clock? Why not instead devote your energy to sifting through forgotten garbage for tarnished gold?
In the time since Aesop Rock released Spirit World Field Guide, his old underground rap peer MF DOOM has himself entered the spirit world. Aes eulogized DOOM movingly on the one-off song “Ask Anyone,” and then he rapped alongside DOOM’s posthumous voice on Atmosphere’s “Barcade.” The existence of those two songs is proof that Aesop Rock continues to participate, however fitfully, in the rap economy. He even did the math homework of making all the beats for Homeboy Sandman’s recent EP Angelitu. But my favorite recent non-album Aesop Rock track has been the weirdest one. It’s “Long Legged Larry,” a song-length children’s tale about a heroic frog. Who else is doing that?
On Garbology, Aesop Rock specifically mentions himself “dipping in and out the flow of time.” That, I think, is a useful way to look at how the man is currently conducting his career. Aes doesn’t sound the same as he did in the late ’90s, but he’s closer to that than he is to anything else happening now. The younger rappers who take the most from Aesop Rock, the Open Mike Eagles and R.A.P. Ferreiras of the world, are the ones who seem more into the idea of coming up with their own worlds than competing with ours. They’ve got the right idea. Aesop Rock is now completely detached from the rap conversation, and his continued artistry is a strong argument for why we should all ignore that conversation, too. Why stay current when you can make something like this?
1. Your Old Droog – “Meteor Man” (Feat. Lil Ugly Mane & billy woods)
I love all three of these guys on this song, but Lil Ugly Mane’s general misanthropy is what really gets me: “Politicians, cut ’em ‘cross the throat, not a bad decision/ Shove my middle finger in the fuckin’ stab incision/ Then drip my bladder’s piss all on your fuckin’ flag traditions/ Need a asteroid with a fast collision, wipe out every bastard livin’.”
2. Fivio Foreign – “Squeeze”
Fivio Foreign has mastered an important rap skill. When he wants, he can sound utterly disgusted by your entire existence. That’s an elite-rapper thing. He’s really getting there.
3. 30 Deep Grimeyy – “Around”
Anytime a rap song has that hard-thump piano sound, I’m on board. If it’s underneath a rapper who’s doing hungry-young-hyena things, that’s even better.
4. Seed Of 6ix – “Mafia Family” (Feat. DJ Paul, Lord Infamous, & Yelawolf)
The two members of Seed Of 6ix are nephews of Three 6 Mafia founder DJ Paul, and one of them is the son of Paul’s brother, the late Lord Infamous. Nepotism sucks, but if everyone is going to be trying to bite that early Three 6 sound, then these guys at least have a familial claim on it. Also, I like the craggy old-man quality in DJ Paul’s voice right now.
5. Sauce Walka – “Drill Spill”
Sauce Walka’s whole new Drill Spill mixtape is well worth your time. (The Hell Rell guest verse on “Frenemy”? Highly recommended.) On the title track, Houston’s greatest underground rapper tries his hand at New York drill, which is a variant of UK drill, which is a variant of Chicago drill. Rap geography is crazy!