Hip-hop may be the most divisive genre in popular music, both inside and out. Artists and albums are constantly defined against each other by race, class, and, most of all, lyrical content. For nearly a decade, independent and underground hip-hop were so separated from the mainstream as to have their own system of influences and calling cards. While mainstream hip-hop still lives in the looming shadow of artists so unanimous they come in preset groups (Big and Pac, Dre and Snoop, Nas and Jay), what has now come to be known as underground hip-hop, on the other hand, has rappers like Aesop Rock, who would rather stand ever-present in the background than loom menacingly. While what is actually DIY, indie, or underground now spreads widely outside their ranks, rap labels like Rhymesayers Entertainment and Definitive Jux once cultivated an aesthetic based upon unapologetic adventurousness and opposition to the mainstream. Aesop Rock specifically was patient zero for a flow that now saturates traditionalists in the genre: a stressed, nasally delivery, and a unwaveringly serious attitude.
What defined Aesop Rock on 1999’s Appleseed or 2001’s Labor Days is what still defines him today. The non-essential elements of his new music, however, say a lot about how far he and rap music have come during his sixteen year career. If Skelethon is evidence of larger waves in the rap community, it shows a nuanced definition of the term alternative. Skelethon shows the term as describing a dialectic, a music that defines itself against the mainstream by sharing multiple key elements with today’s trending-topic-based mainstream. As rap-cleric Andrew Noz observed in a review of this year’s Nicki Minaj release, Roman Reloaded, large segments of regional hip-hop, as well the starlet herself, have been making major strides towards a breakneck, frenetic style. Compared to many of his earlier releases, Skelethon’s Aesop is a speed machine, rarely leaving the road, but certainly never looking in the rear view mirror.
He’s moved from the looped, self-evident samples of his past as well, favoring breakneck electro and clean, stripped-down breaks. Listening closely, you could hear fuzzy Houston-inspired moments and even screwed vocals, mirroring the industry’s recent shift toward inorganic, atmospheric sounds from producers like Tyler the Creator, Clams Casino, Noah “40” Shebib, and even fellow underground OG El-P.
The resulting mix of trending sounds and personal signatures can make for an exhilarating but difficult listen. In the end, any of the album’s faults can be attributed to the MC’s standard weaknesses. Overthought lyrics can yield needlessly obtuse lines like “candles of a Roman ilk” and generally confusing storytelling. Songs often rotate around oddly specific hooks, catchy at times but cringe-worthy after repetition. At its best the album is transportive, realizing surprisingly complex snapshots straight from the Aesop’s brain. Quite a few seem worthy of their own HP Lovecraft stories: lumbering monsters, odd family crises, and weird haircuts. At these moments, his scattershot vocabulary solidifies. When the album misses, the experience can be unfortunately stressful, unnecessarily serious, and lacking in healthy self-awareness. Luckily these moments are in the minority on an album that largely moves smoothly from scene to scene. Sixteen years into his career, the levels of consideration and creativity evidenced by Skelethon are much more than we can expect.