Review Summary: A delightfully trippy and weird release that is nonetheless hampered by some predictability.
Aesop Rock has long languished in the sort of cult obscurity that can be worn like a badge, where he can reliably get a few hundred-thousand streams per song from dedicated fans, yet an album like Malibu Ken
doesn’t get featured on Spotify’s New Releases section. Who knows what sort of black magic algorithms go into those decisions, but, regardless, it makes him a great match for Black Moth Super Rainbow’s psychedelic beat-maker Tobacco, whose group and solo work line up with Aes’s in popularity.
It was less clear how his flow would jive with Tobacco’s trippy beats. In Aesop’s own words, his beats are usually “part Def Jam, part Dischord,” but Malibu Ken
stands as a great reminder that his flow is more chameleon-like than he gets credit for sometimes. Standout “Tuesday” finds him spitting like syrup, patiently enunciating each word while Tobacco’s keys swell and sway like simulated seasickness. Yet he can also engage in automatic-gunfire rapping in songs like “1+1=13” and “Save Our Ship”, hardly pausing to take a breath between his typically multisyllabic wordplay. Over the years, it has become much easier to pick out the individual words that he’s saying (the intro to “The Yes and the Y’all”, which I still barely understand, was a long time ago now), and that can only be a plus for one of hip-hop’s most astute and verbose lyricists.
Still, getting easier to understand doesn’t mean he’s easier to understand
. It’s anyone’s guess why a cat – the symbol of Aes’s hard-won therapeutic breakthroughs on The Impossible Kid
– is snatched up and carried away by an eagle in “Churro”. Or why teen murderer Ricky Kasso makes an appearance in his lyrics for the first time in 12 years in “Acid King”. After a brief mention in “Catacomb Kids” on None Shall Pass
, Kasso gets a song-length tribute wherein Aes both revels in their shared history (same town, same school, same affinity for drugs and isolation) and laments the ultimate tragedy of Kasso’s life, offering some final advice for kids who, like them, feel as if they don’t fit in (“Hold close to the highs and the white lights/Hold close to the good you are drawn to”). The last time he engaged in this kind of straightforward storytelling was “Ruby ‘81”, but that song didn’t have anything to do with stab wounds and gouged-out eyeballs. It’s a dark trip to get to that hope at the end of “Acid King”, especially when accentuated by Tobacco’s menacing production, but when a rapper like Aes talks straight, it’s worth paying attention to.
When the last few tracks roll around, it becomes clear that Tobacco and Aes are sticking with the same formula for the album’s duration. Tobacco will gradually layer more variously-filtered keys, Aes will find something to chant for the chorus, and then some distorted vocals will close the track out. Two albums of this might get tiring, but for 34 minutes, it works perfectly despite the predictability. What is slightly disappointing about this release is that Aes’s last album, The Impossible Kid
, was basically perfect, a sublime marriage of beats, lyrics, and flow made all the more thrilling by Aesop’s willingness to finally pull back the curtain to reveal his struggles with depression, therapy, prescriptions, and a deep self-loathing born from a lost desire to draw. There is a little bit of that here, but I can’t help missing it from a man who has twice
written songs that perfectly describe my childhood: “Grace” and “Blood Sandwich”. But in these days of social media prevalence, luckily, we can satisfy these cravings elsewhere.
If you’ve seen Aesop’s Instagram page recently, you know he’s drawing again.