Everyone grows up. It’s a process bathed in confusion, reflection, and ultimately triumph. Artists have to endure this trial in their personal lives as well as their craft, but great things can happen when the two intersect. After years of perfecting his syllable-cramming style and writing chops, Aesop Rock’s None Shall Pass is filled with precise lyrical detail and head-nodding production, and the result is his most accessible record of his career to date. Though he still prefers to shroud his ruminations in cryptic couplets — sometimes even borderline gibberish — None Shall Pass is the sound of this Def Jukie growing into his beats, rhymes, and life.
In the past, Ace trafficked heavily in musical and lyrical psychedelia, a trend that crested on 2003’s Bazooka Tooth. Some beats here survive on off-kilter timing — most notably Blockhead’s composition on “Fumes” — and there are still plenty of impenetrable rhymes lying around. But by and large the production, especially Ace’s own, bounces with a pep uncommon to his records, opening the door for the New York emcee to step back and take stock with a great deal of clarity. The darkness that typified Ace’s previous work still rears its head from time to time, but it’s been largely replaced with a comfortable acceptance.
The newly minted thirty-year-old Aesop, for example, laughs off the absurdity of quantifying life on “Keep off the Lawn,” content with recognizing he’s correct and not bothering to lecture those who disagree. It’s not a furious indictment so much as a celebration of knowing he’s got it right at this point, a solace that can only be attained through the gauntlet of living. Each observation is punctuated with lucid details such as “cigarettes and pills on the speaker/ silhouetted by the muted television and the rickety venetians” that create time and place and aid the narratives he spins across the record.
Whether recounting tales of teenage ennui on “Five Fingers” and the album’s runaway banger, “Catacomb Kids,” or the tragic relationship of “Fumes,” Ace’s storytelling is in full effect here — making Mountain Goat John Darnielle’s guest spot on “Coffee” quite appropriate. Aesop teaches without beating us over the head, and still manages to rock some flat-out bangers, many courtesy of Blockhead’s finest tracks ever. Ace’s style is often maligned as too esoteric, but his themes, if not his delivery, fit tidily within the lineage of hip-hop. Where Bazooka Tooth revealed the height of his confusion, None Shall Pass represents the reflection and triumph of saying, “Well, this is me. Take it or leave it, bitches.” Reaching that point is one hell of a victory — and so is this record.