There are poets, there are wizards and wordsmiths, there are alchemic writers, and then there is all of the above: Aesop Rock.
An underground legend and an above-ground dream of a rapper, Aes’ two-decade-plus career is marked by his Dalí-meets-Kafka, meets existentially woeful everyman bars, and a tricking delivery that has morphed from skittering double-time to scrolling syllables.
Two years removed from his last full-length LP The Impossible Kid, Aesop Rock finds himself teaming up with producer TOBACCO, aka Black Moth Super Rainbow. An unlikely perfect match, TOBACCO opts for experimental productions, using pre-digital instruments, and skirts orthodox conventions of arrangement whenever possible.
The duo has released Malibu Ken, as Malibu Ken, and we are invited to find ourselves across 10 colorful, lyrically rich, and sonically challenging cuts. Breezy narrative is a figment of our imaginations. Lucidity is scoffed at. Instead, Aes asks us to “step up to the thimble rig” and slide down into a funhouse of music only he could craft.
The greatest treat on Malibu Ken is the analog production that can stand up to the winding and knotty nature of Aes' writing. Aes isn't rapping over the beats so much as the sounds are all in conversation with each other, making for a nicely dense and dynamic listen. There are moments of high tension and immediate release à la the suffocating “Tuesday” and “Sword Box.” All of the beats are uniquely trippy and rattling. Perhaps the most admirable thing about TOBACCO's work with Aes is that he makes music as distinct as Aesop Rock's cadence and pen. Think the watery vocoder that follows “Leaders of the free world blowing on dice” on “1+1=13.”
Aes puts simple words together because they sound tight (“Save Our Ship,” “Dog Years,” the song title “Suicide Big Gulp”) and he sounds charismatic while he does it. Aesop Rock is a special artist in that he is supremely creative, and can make anything sound good ("Rent like a levitating witch"). When Aes focuses on the "anything" of the album, Malibu Ken soars. The task for Aesop Rock is to make himself as interesting and dynamic as possible, as a man and not simply as an orator.
At this point in his career, there are no questions left for Aesop Rock to answer. His rapping ability is bar none. His writing ability is much of the same. This is ultimately the curse of Malibu Ken. Aesop Rock has nothing to prove, and as a result, has little new ground to cover. With fewer stories to tell, once we get past the technical and sonic thrill of the album, we are left wondering, "Is this not more of the same?"
Yet, when Aesop succeeds, Malibu Ken is a color-blasted, surrealist listen that tends to the ear and tickles the brain. There are no outright duds, only moments where it's clear that Aesop Rock has already given us everything. After 22 years of rapping, there is little left to deliver.
Standout Track: "Tuesday"
Best Bar: "Rent like a levitating witch"
Favorite Moment: The beat on "Dog Years"