Aesop Rock - None Shall Pass

Posted September 3, 2007
Tags: Aesop Rock,

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I first fell in love with hip-hop, but I do know when I...

None Shall Pass Album Review

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I first fell in love with hip-hop, but I do know when I first committed a crime for hip-hop. In my younger days I would spend hours in record store listening booths, cranking every album I could find through the frayed headphones. One night I happened to come across Aesop Rock’s album Labor Days and immediately went into cardiac arrest. Hours later the store was darkening and I couldn’t stop. With only loose change in my pockets I had no choice, I bolted with it tucked under my arm like a sleeping child. You know what Virgin Records, I have no guilt. I’d do it again, come get me.

Ever since Aesop Rock first staggered out of New York’s littered subways with a lit cigarette in one hand and a mic in the other, underground hip-hop heads have dared to ask one question; is Ace Rock the greatest lyrical MC ever? Although the man’s officially retired from the self-promotion game, his beautifully broken new album None Shall Pass should only bring the debate to the masses; the spider-tongued MC has either created a work of crushing originality, or an indecipherable mass of syllables. America is a country obsessed with ratings and rankings and Ace Rock knows it, none shall pass without judgment.

Aesop constructs his fragmented rhyme style from cutting snippets of conversation and dialogue from TV shows and movies (check the Office Space reference, “he woke up drowning in Chotchkie's hell”) with oddly cryptic prophecies. He’s like a Zen monk who left the monastery to spend his life eating diner food and listening to Slick Rick records. What other MC demands a description like that?

None Shall Pass finds Aesop paring back his legendarily dense flow in the name of clarity, or at least a murky clarity. On Catacomb Kids, a slowly smashed ode to kids raised in a world constantly teetering between boredom and violent death, he rhymes, “kids unite at the food court/chase down cheese fries with banaca/they shut the school down early/there were bombs inside the lockers.” Straightforward enough, but then moments later he ends the verse with, “it was/rain of the razor laser/day of the cloudy howdy/flight of the shelter melter/you can bow without me.” What’s that mean? I have no idea, and chances are he doesn’t either. Aesop’s not trying to outsmart you, it just sounds dope, though feel free to spend the next ten years trying to figure it out.

With the inevitable focus on his linguistic dexterity it’s easy to overlook AR’s musical development. None Shall Pass is a testament to the electronically-enabled innovation of contemporary hip-hop production. Longtime friend and producer Blockhead has always served as musical counterbalance to Aesop’s lyrical weight and their creative partnership is at a peak on the album. The title track None Shall Pass is built around a lightly mechanical loop that echoes the robotic lives of commuters who have to endlessly wake, work and sleep to just pay the rent. Bring Back Pluto intersperses distant harmonies, live instrumentation, and scratches by DJ Big Wiz, who’s subtly skilled turntable work can be heard throughout. Scientists recently declared Pluto isn’t really a planet, a situation the distantly orbiting AR can certainly relate to as his place in hip-hop (does he have a place in hip-hop?) continues to be debated.

Aesop also produced roughly a third of the album himself. Keep Off the Lawn is equal parts electronic looping and live percussion, it sounds like an army of cyborg b-boys marching to do battle, while Five Fingers drowns a jazz trumpet in ambiently infused synths and bass. Even Def Jux label-boss El-P gets behind the boards for sonic darkness on Guns For the Whole Family. Musically, None Shall Pass uses hip-hop to stare at a world constantly threatening disaster squarely in the face and finds enough hope to remain human and alive.

The last track on the album, not counting the hidden track Pigs, is the shockingly live track Coffee. Aesop’s nicotine-stained voice can sound monotone, but on Coffee he busts out a blisteringly cadenced flow and the only real chorus on the album, bringing in underground folk music hero John Darnielle for the vocals. Coffee’s indicative of the album as a whole, if you’re willing to put in a little work None Shall Pass may just expand your idea of what hip-hop can be. Go buy it. Or steal it if you have to, just don’t mention my name at the trial.

DJBooth Rating - 4.5 Spins

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Posted September 3, 2007
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