Aesop Rock is one of few artists out that can take six years between records without too much trouble. For one, since 2006's None Shall Pass, he has given us production work with Murs and Atmosphere on Felt 3, plenty of great guest verses, Hail Mary Mallon (his project with Rob Sonic), and so on. More than that, though, it takes so long to unpack and figure out Rock's rapid-fire rhymes that you need a few years to work it all out. Because even if he takes a while between records, on the word level he is as prolific as any rapper out there, packing each and every song to bursting with his strange, fascinating phrasings.
Not much has changed on that front with Skelethon, but things have been refined. Aesop Rock has been refining his flow by degrees over the years, and while you're unlikely to mistake his voice for anyone else's, the way in which he rhymes here bears little resemblance to, say, his rhymes on Bazooka Tooth. He follows the smooth but thorny verses of None Shall Pass with another set of raps that are nearly impossible to follow but flow out with a surprising accessibility. There's something almost melodic about the way Aesop strings words together, and the rising and falling of his inflection gives even the most obscure image life. When, on "ZZZ Top," he spits about "synthesized cultures on a stage" you may not totally follow at first, but somehow it works.
The great thing about Aesop's verses, though they never come at their subjects head on, they are deeply rooted in the physical. He forgets the scene and focuses on the microscopic details that make it unique. On Skelethon, he turns that eye for detail towards ideas of loss and death. We start, with "Leisureforce," on the River Styx, with " undead orks pulling oars through the algae." Later in the record, we have scavenger birds picking carcasses clean ("Crows 1" and "Crows 2") and a near-death experience for an infant at a pool party ("Ruby '81").
Reports around the record's release suggest Aesop himself suffered some personal losses before he made Skelethon, but this isn't a record about grief or worry so much as it is about the things we use to distract ourself from it. On "Ruby '81" -- one of Aesop's finest examples of more linear storytelling -- the parents don't dwell on how they neglected the child, they look at the animal who saved her and say "good dog." That's it. The troubled teens in "ZZZ Top" don't improve their situation so much as they carve slogans into desks and draw them into their sneakers. The instructional "Homemade Mummy" doesn't approach death, but rather makes it approachable by making a caricature of it. Lead single "Zero Dark Thirty" circles these ideas back around to music itself, and paints the hype-machine culture as parasitic, as the "mothman munching textiles." So even music, which can be both escape from and expression of loss, isn't sufficient.
And that's the crux of Skelethon: that all this distraction can't work. The production hovers behind Aesop's words like a shadow. The beats are dark, sometimes sinister (the horror-movie blips in "Zero Dark Thirty"), sometimes frantic (the excellent shuffle of "Tetra") and everything here has a dingy, industrial feel to it. This is Aesop's first fully self-produced solo record, and he comes out with his best set of beats yet, the darkness of them never trudging, always infused with enough energetic thump to keep them moving forward.
There are few guests here -- Kimya Dawson adds a haunting chorus to "Crows 1," and there's also scratching from DJ Big Wiz, backing vocals from Rob Sonic, Dirty Ghosts' Alison Baker, and more -- and so this becomes solely Aesop's show. He carries that burden perfectly well with these unique verses, but you may find yourself wanting a lyrical foil here. For an album about masking feeling behind the objects around you, Skelethon can seem cloaked in its own aesthetic, wrapped in its own wings in a high, dark corner, and as a result isolated in a way that can limit its impact. That limitation is slight -- this is still a consistently great set of songs, and the album another major accomplishment for Aesop Rock -- but it's still there on the edges, keeping a great record from becoming another classic from one of our best working emcees.