Review Summary: Charmingly obnoxious and oddly affecting, while enthusiastically representing messages of freedom and insanity. Poetry at its most tested...and beautiful.
Robert Frost summed up the complete concept behind poetry without a missing a single detail when he said “poetry is saying one thing and meaning another.” “It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it’s a tantalizing vagueness.” I happen to agree with this statement, and have also come to think that absurdist poetry is most likely the best representation of its meaning. Everyone’s favorite far-too-convenient Internet source, Wikipedia, defines absurdist literature as “a genre of literature that focuses on the experiences of characters in a situation where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events.” I’m about half-happy with this definition. An absurdist piece is meant throw its characters around, putting them through a series of days that are destined to have no effect on the course of their lifetimes, but I disagree with the effects of this action being “meaningless.” And I think rapper Aesop Rock would too, for his seminal album Labor Days
is a cornucopia of hyper-ambiguous ramblings, ponderings, muses, and of course, poetry. Hyper-ambiguous, yes. Meaningless? Hardly.
Aesop doesn’t so much speak his wisdom as he masticates it, enthusiastically spitting it out, covered in conviction chowder. His sometimes absurd (there’s [part of] that word again) thoughts do sometimes border on the meaningless, but every single word
he utters, throughout the entire album, is dropped inside of a very arresting context, a context driven by Aesop’s crazy conviction and obviously hyper-acidic creative juices, that manages to make everything he says sound like it’s a matter of life and death. It’s like the words are given
meaning by Aesop’s intense desire to make sure every word can
have meaning for the particular person listening. Whenever he begins a new (possible) extended metaphor off the rhyme that came before it, he makes sure to carry it on, consistently creating consistent images through the album’s whole duration, like in ‘One Brick:’
“When little Billy bought a tugboat,
Now he thinks he’s Captain Ahab
Fascist takes for the peg-leg’s birds and eye patches,
Learn that lesson, you’ll be swashbuckling with the best of ‘em”
But Aesop’s rhymes don’t always border on the meaningless. In fact, remember that ‘context’ I was talking about earlier, and the fact that despite each song on Labor Days
having literally oodles of images to be intrigued by, you can still note each song having similar images tying everything together, remember that? It creates for some seriously
emotionally hard-hitting, and puzzlingly affecting poetry. Take the hook of ‘Daylight,’ for instance, “All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day and put the pieces back together my way.”
He’s not coming out and directly pointing at the feeling that’s supposed to be implied in this line, and yet it’s still impossible to not relate to it. That’s a poetic feat, my friends. And the poetic feats on this album could probably fill around twelve volumes of encyclopedionaries.
So basically, Aesop’s lyrics are a stunning combination of tinker toy words- words that you can put meaning in and take meaning out of, depending on your mood- schizophrenic storytelling, and charmingly obnoxious and puzzlingly comical ways to say something else (again, poetry). This is shown perfectly in ‘Coma,’ when Aesop says “Catch more z’s than Rip Van Winkle’s 12-step narcolepsy seminar.”
And in ‘Battery,’ with “Prodigal son with a prodigal wish to sew that prodigal stitch, and crucify bigot voodoo doll on two popsicle sticks.”
And again in ‘Boombox,’ with this epic stanza:
“Does it ice grill you, or is every song faceless?
Does it have a title? If it didn’t, would you name it?
Does it babble about nothing like a drunk atheist?”
But to add even more variation, Aesop also throws in a few lines that so obviously
have a significant and relevant meaning, be it a satire on America’s growing technological dependence (“If the revolution ain’t gon’ be televised, then ***, I’ll probably miss it,”
from ‘Coma’), a muse on morality (“Don’t tell me Lucifer and God don’t carpool,”
from ‘Battery’), or an editorial on being one of the kings of the prog-hop scene (“Dwarfed by the lights, bewildered by the fan base, bound by an idea, skeptical of the handshakes,”
from ‘The Yes and the Y’all’). And during other times on the album, you don’t even have to overanalyze anything like a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual ***stick (kinda like that guy who wrote that one Labor Days
review for Sputnik on May 17th, 2012), and the words just sound ***ing cool
“Okay, welcome to the kamikaze bottle rocket cockpit,
Live by the icy hand of bad intention youth blender
Oh yeah, I’ll let God warm the bench for now,
But I’ll ascend to spin y’all dizzy,
And for the record, I’m bringin’ my TV with me!”
But oh, yes, this is a hip-hop album. The poetry is so unorthodox and oddly arresting that it’s hard to not think you’re listening to the world-changing brain products of some sort of psilocybin Shakespeare, and actually pay some attention to the perfectly crafted beats that give the words an emotional path to walk on. That flute that glides around the beat of ‘Daylight’? Yeah, it’s probably one of the reasons that song was this album’s single. And the strings bouncing through the background of ‘No Regrets,’ the heavy drums of ‘Boombox,’ and the eerie, off-balance rhythm of ‘Save Yourself’ are all equally enthralling. Pieces of beats are strategically removed and added in order to accentuate certain lyrics, and it’s always done with the touch of a master. Honestly, the beats show signs of someone who knew exactly
what he was doing, and play an undeniably vital role in the excursion, the adventure, the absolute ***ing trip
this album is.
Aesop is already pretty highly regarded in his scene, but I’m of the opinion that he deserves even more. To take a style of poetry, a style of art, so inherently inaccessible, and inject it with the soul of the most concrete of Biggie’s East Coast gangsta’ tales, is something truly worthy of a medal. Labor Days
is a ‘classic’ in the sense that it just might be the best representation of what it is, a wildly successful experiment in “saying one thing and meaning another.” The album bleeds
the feeling that even though “Dragonball Z/Speed Racer gene splicing” sounds
like a distant, pointless fantasy, it could
In ‘Bent Life,’ Aesop observes “that cat at my shows that’s always got prophetic opinions but can’t remember where his drink is.” Labor Days
is so chock-full of that engrossing, stimulating, for some reason fist-pumping energy, that it makes me wanna be
that cat. Some may think all the potential meaning in the songs of Labor Days fell through the cracks, and I’d simply tell these folks that they’re listening to the album the wrong way. Listening to the album is essentially being inside
those cracks, scraping off just the right amount of meaning you want. Labor Days
is freedom, it’s insanity, it goes from brazen and boisterous to humble restraint, and everything in between. Its ideas are different to everyone who hears them, but they’re always beautiful. It’s…poetry.