Aesop Rock at the Finish Line
It's been five years since Aesop Rock has released a new album. Pretty soon, he's going to need a vacation.
That's because despite the long gap between solo records, San Francisco's indie-rap icon never really stopped working. Since recording 2007's None Shall Pass, Aesop Rock has toured the world, produced an album by hip-hop duo Felt, released an LP with longtime collaborators DJ Big Whiz and Rob Sonic as Hail Mary Mallon and recorded yet another record with anti-folkster Kimya Dawson.
And all the while, he was piecing together last month's Skelethon (Rhymesayers Entertainment), his most challenging project to date. In addition to writing and performing all of the new songs, the rapper also took over production duties on each and every track for the first time.
The artistic appeal of taking such total control of one's own vision might seem obvious, but it can also be intensely tedious. Writing and recording are hard work. To hear Aesop tell it, though, there was never any choice.
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"I didn't really feel like there was any option, to be honest," he says. "That's what music has turned into for me. It's all hard at times, and there were many instances of wanting to give up, but that happens constantly. It can be a tall order to do it all, but it feels nice and natural and really like the only way I could have finished this project."
The result is a dense, restless album that at times sounds like a man being guided through an existential nightmare by his own talent. Characteristically, Aesop's steely, intricate lyrics are saturated with meaning that can sometimes be difficult to parse without the aid of a college dictionary.
What is clear is that songs like "Crows 1" are drenched in dread and decay, even as Aesop Rock is unable to slow down long enough to properly digest these anxieties.
"Everything you think you're hiding shows / In the way you view the graves like a string of tiny thrones," he raps. "Messages you'd tucked away for keeps have resurfaced to be heard amidst the butchery and beaks."
The messages contained on Skelethon didn't all surface at once. Aesop Rock says that he worked piecemeal, writing songs one bit at a time before his overactive brain moved on to some other pressing task. Progress was slow.
"It's all pretty patchy at first — taking notes, piecing things together here and there, writing multiple songs at once," he says. "It's just like chipping away at a ton of things. It felt like for so long I had no songs, but then they all sort of near completion around the same time and it dawns on you that you made an album."
The luxury of working at his own pace is one reason Aesop elected to do his own production on the record. The beats and samples he weaves together on Skelethon, the latticework upon which he weaves his relentless rhymes, are often layered with fuzzy synths and other strange sounds. Some backing tracks sound like distressed analog loops of kung-fu movie soundtracks that have been fired into space inside a refurbished Saturn rocket.
"Making beats, for me, is like gold mining or something — you just never know what's gonna happen," he says. "You could find the perfect thing in two seconds, or you could be at it for months with no results.
"I do some writing without any beat or production, but it doesn't ever fully get realized until I stumble onto a cool riff, or a cool drum pattern or something like that," adds Aesop. "I kinda just press buttons and listen to records until there's a specific sound that makes your eyebrows go up."
After he put the new album together in dribs and drabs over the past several years, it's now time to take these songs on the road. Aesop is a strong live performer, an unassuming but unshakable presence onstage who's seemingly incapable of flubbing a line. It doesn't hurt that he's flanked by DJ Big Whiz and Rob Sonic, two confident, experienced performers in their own right.
Still, transitioning songs from the studio to the stage can feel risky, even for an established scene veteran like Aesop Rock. He says he deals with the anxiety by pushing it out of his mind altogether.
"The songs on this record and on all my records are made over a longer period of time in which you kind of block out the fact that this stuff will actually be released to the public one day," he says. "Risk doesn't really enter into the thought process. I basically just do the songs and then one day I say, 'Oh, man, people are actually about to hear this mess!'"
"Messy" is not a term often applied to Aesop Rock's flow. His rhymes are tight and supple, furiously tap-dancing around the beat. His rapid-fire lyrics can be difficult to follow at times, let alone memorize. Getting them right every night is a challenge the rapper faces each time he takes new material out for the first time.
"We rehearse a good amount, and I know what I'm in for," he says. "The only times it gets hard is when we're pulling a song we haven't done in a while and I have to essentially relearn it. I was actually really worried stepping out on this tour even after everything went fine in rehearsals, because our set is 90 percent brand-new material. But once we had a few shows under our belt, it's been going fairly smooth."
Aesop's Houston fans still have a couple days to commit Skelethon's complex rhymes to memory before he rolls into Fitzgerald's Friday. Don't forget those dictionaries.
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