At a time when hip-hop is saying, literally next to nothing (“Crank dat Soulja Boy?”), Aesop Rock is still cramming more words (and big ones at that) into a song than bookworm Colin Meloy. It’s a surprise that Aes didn’t choose Meloy to guest on the record, but instead choose another literary-minded indie-rocker, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. It’s not a mistake: both Darnielle and Aes share the love of a good story, but whereas Darnielle lays out his details like clues, Aes scatters them like puzzle pieces. On None Shall Pass Aes continues to weave 10 dollars words around a beat unlike any other current or past MC. For my money, nobody spits internal rhymes better than Aes. For those that thought Bazooka Tooth, Aes’ unfairly maligned 2003 full-length, found the MC’s lyrics confrontationally mainstream, missed the whole career-arcing point.
As documented in the Dutch documentary of Definitive Jux Records, Aesop went through a rough time after Labor Days. For the first time his music was gaining major critical appreciation and, in his own words, he “didn’t know what to do with it”. Thus came Bazooka Tooth a hostile, angry, pseudo-concept record, full of Aes’ own dementedly futuristic production. Bazooka Tooth, and the alter ego of the same name, allowed Aes to step back from the limelight and grit his teeth a little. With Bazooka Tooth Aes showed that he could write punch lines like the best of ‘em as well as integrate a more palatable, emotional flow into his unusually dense wordplay. Still, fans saw Bazooka Tooth as a sell-out, while non-fans where even more bewildered by the eccentric turn. Both seemed to have gotten their wish as None Shall Pass is both emotionally engaging like Labor Days, loaded with stock low-key Blockhead beats like Float, and something altogether new, like “Coffee”, a full-band sounding Blockhead production, with the aforementioned Darnielle doing his usual, cryptic yelling thing at the end of the track.
But while this “return to roots” will no-doubt be welcomed by longtime fans, one can’t help but wonder where Aes would have gone if he expanded upon Bazooka Tooth’s hostile hunger. Maybe it’s because Aes got all wifed-up and moved to sunny Cali, but he seems to have lost that creativity-fueled anger of his recent works. Take “Citronella”: the dude that once said “if the revolution ain’t gonna be televised then fuck, I’ll probably miss it”, now rails against the boob tube like a bitter (albeit clever) old man. None Shall Pass is almost easy listening compared to anything off Bazooka Tooth and much of Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives. The most interesting track is appropriately hidden. “Pigs” has Aes all riled up over handclaps and blues guitar, mixing his Labor Days criticism with Bazooka Tooth’s bile, and for a minute there, we get the Aes of old: “clinically bonkers”, hating “just about everyone god’s great earth offers”.
But this was all part of Aes’ plan. In interviews, Aes has said how on None Shall Pass he wanted to talk less at people and more with them. This idea transfers well on the more linear songs, like “Bring Back Pluto”, where, over a downtempo bongo-jazz beat by Blockhead, Pluto’s demotion from planet status is used as a metaphor for general bureaucratic bullying (“They’re gonna take his milk money next”). Elsewhere, “The Harbor Is Yours” is a strange remix/ re-envisioning of Aes’ “Fishtales” track from his 7” with Jeremy Fish, with the bearded angler replaced by a swashbuckling marauder.
In true Def Jux fashion, all but one of the guests on None Shall Pass are label-mates. El-P shows up on “Gun for the Whole Family”, which sounds like an outtake from his wonderfully menacing I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. On “Getaway Car” Cage and Breeze Brewin from the Juggaknots do Blockhead’s sweeping soul-sampling chase soundtrack beat (which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Ghostface record) justice. Cage in particular rips it with a verse hinting at his time spent in the Stoney Lodge Psychiatric Hospital (which is rumored to be made into a film by, and staring, Shia LaBeouf). Rob Sonic trades verses with Aes on “Dark Heart News”, showing that he hasn’t changed his ”16-bit retro-futuroid Zulu Tubeway Army” production style at all since Telicatessen.
Aesop was always a vulnerable MC, but it wasn’t until lately that he’s shed light on his personal life, particularly his upbringing. The standout on Fast Cars was “Holy Smokes”, a diatribe against Aes’ Catholic-upbringing. “Catacomb Kids” is a sequel of sorts, detailing the awkward rumblings of little Aes in Long Island, idolizing graffers and “puking pills behind the dumpster”. Aes hasn’t been this candid since the Daylight EP bonus track, where he talked about his struggle, and eventual victory over, depression. None Shall Pass will likely be remembered as his grappling-with-maturity record. The title track is all about that battle with “duty and death” and being forced to “comply and conform”. Its themes echo throughout the record, with Aes hesitantly easing into a Bazooka Tooth-less life. You can hear Aes addressing his stubborn peers still popping pills behind the dumpster on “Fumes”: “You ain’t shit man / Your story’s a joke / You should package it with a last smoke / And six feet of rope.” Not wanting to be that person, Aes had a similar realization on “The Greatest Pac-Man Victory in History”, rapping “Some will try to recapture the same flag but I played it smart and recognized the summertime past.” Emphasis mine.