It is no secret that the written word was replaced long ago as the go-to source of entertainment. Yes, people still read, but unless you’re waking up with the Lancaster sun to churn the day’s butter, the more stimulating and passive methods of passing time usually win our attention. It’s just too easy to tie up, slap and stab a swollen vein and hook ourselves up to an intravenous flow of fun from other sources like, for example, the television. Truth is, we could all stand to watch a little less of MTV’s Sorority Life and instead read a book or two. But for some of us, it’s just too damn hard to resist the complex story lines and visceral rewards of such quality television. And the resulting implications are far-reaching. One is that the better thoughts of yesteryear’s great minds are increasingly less noticed. But another, more important result is the waning collective ability, or even inclination, to lay down with original thoughts of our own.
And that is where Aesop Rock comes in. In his machine-gun barrage of thought-provoking articulations, he is hip-hop’s closest thing to a Socrates, doing his part to save the population from further becoming dribbling goats by spitting social commentary and getting people to think again. His talent lies not only in his compelling thoughts, but also in his ability to manipulate and form fit each thought to flow and bend around equally articulate rhythms. But it is his uncanny ability to put together a statement, intentionally or not, that makes listeners stop and think, and maybe even press pause or rewind so as to let everything sink in, that makes Aesop Rock’s releases damn near redoubtable.
Aesop’s previous releases have given the emcee quite a following — Appleseed is almost mythically coveted and elusive — but his name really came to the forefront with Labor Days, his 2001 release on Definitive Jux. That record was thematic, each of the songs dealing with the impetus to putting that old proverbial ear to the grindstone to gather cash and how that conflicts with following true aspirations. Like Labor Days, the Daylight EP has a serious tone and showcases Aesop’s talent, and is successful in itself. But after the acclaim of Labor Days he is stepping up against a weighty adversary. And it is as a follow up to Labor Days that Daylight falls short.
On Labor Days, the doldrums were interlaced with the positive thoughts, creating a harmony in its subject matter, in its weightiness, and in its overall flow. Daylight, however, fails to have that balance. By its middle, Daylight becomes a drag to listen to (save Aesop’s technically jaw-dropping wordsmithing) because, though it is only eight songs long, each gets successively darker and heavier.
In spite of the downward spiral, Daylight is a solid record. Technically, the record deserves a higher rating than I gave it, but it was docked on account of the evil things I wanted to do to myself after listening. Each of the tracks on the record has its own bright gem, though sometimes it his hard to let yourself get dragged through the muck to find flecks of shiny diamonds. The beats complement and enhance the lyrics and are so thick and heavy that it is nearly impossible to keep your head from bouncing with the drops. And, as we’ve come to expect from Aesop, this record is at its best when its beats and lyrics can be given full attention. His demanding nature can be, and often is, a turn-off for many who are unwilling or lack the energy to delve into his multi-layered, dense and sometimes obscure lyrical patterns and introspective bantering. And Daylight is Labor Days on amphetamines in that respect. But if you’re willing to follow him through the muck, or if you’re feeling especially introspective, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best writing hip-hop has to offer — a breath of fresh air, if not a light at the end of the tunnel, for lyric junkies like me.
Aesop begins Daylight with a re-release of a song by the same name, which is one of the most accessible and enjoyable tracks off Labor Days. Its purpose on the record was not entirely to remind listeners exactly how good Labor Days was, but rather to serve as a juxtaposition to the second track on the record, called “Night Light” — the dark, evil twin to “Daylight.”
“Night Light” follows “Daylight” with a new, heavier and murkier beat, almost as if he is mocking his previous effort for sounding too jubilant or positive or light-hearted. While the former states, “Life’s not a bitch, life is a beautiful woman/ You only call her a bitch ’cause she wouldn’t let you get that pussy,” the latter answers with, “Life’s not a bitch, life is a bee-otch, who keeps the villagers circling a marketplace out searching for the G-spot.” It is a powerful pairing, allowing for a contrast of the two songs, and it allows a listener who may not be familiar with Labor Days to fully understand the purpose and importance of the new song. With this back-to-back pairing, “Night Light” becomes the most impressive song on the album. He rhymes not only within the song, but also between the two songs. The true power and ingenuity of Aesop saying, “I did invent the wheel, in a previous generation” comes only when remembering his previous effort in that same bar, “I did not invent the wheel, I was the crooked spoke adjacent.” If the record closed after “Night Light” I would still be satisfied. But, alas, Aesop gave me more for my money.
El-P, ex-Company Flow phenom, founder of the Definitive Jux label, hip-hop veteran and now-successful solo artist produces “Nickel-Plated Pockets,” marking his first effort at producing an Aesop Rock song since Aesop joined the label. And he comes through with a patented Company Flow, prototypical El-P beat that is space-influenced and dark, with a deep and sharp organ-drone and oddly placed kicks and snares and angry overtones. Though Aesop and collaborator Blockhead are responsible for the production in previous releases, it is nice to see him using the tools from the Def Jux tool shed. And, Aesop’s incessant verbiage is a welcome complement to El-P’s chunky, minimal beat.
In “Alchemy,” Aesop invites a guest emcee, Blueprint, who begins saying “I spit with an immense amount of power,” essentially characterizing the entire song, with its slower, heavier beat worthy of a dramatic metronome head bob in tandem with the hard bass. In a rare case of Aesop talking about his skills on the microphone, but with his ever-present subliminal confidence, he says, “Yeah, I had ’em up all night hoping I’d re-release Music for Earthworms” — a confidence validated by the demand for his first effort.
In between “Alchemy” and “Bracket Basher” is a floating Blockhead instrumental wrapped in a nocturne of bass and melodies called “Forest Crunk.” “Bracket Basher” features one of the nicest lines on the record, when Aesop says, “I’m only here to rap, eat, sleep, grow old and smoke stoges through the hole in my neck.”
The final track on the EP, called “Maintenance,” is another hazy-painted account of modernity laced over a relatively slow beat that features a flute and violin pulling together bass tones that hit like Godzilla strides. And, those who happen to sit through fifteen minutes of silence will stumble across the secret track, a welcome surprise and apparent cause for elation. But take it from me; control your excitement, because this discovery is double-edged. The delight of eureka quickly dims as the song opens with an Aesop self-examination, a robotic voice that sounds similar to Radiohead’s path to personal health and success mapped out on OK Computer. Aesop continues to thank those who helped him get by when his “seemingly splinter-proof brain bone scaffolding imploded” in a gritty account of his own depression. The robotic voice returns at the end of the track, repeating “Thank you for helping me to not die,” at which point Aesop Rock’s “Fifty-two Minute Seminar to Finding Your Own Corner of Hell” is over. The curtain drops, but the audience remains, faces in hands. Damn, now I’m depressed…I wonder if Sorority Life is on.