Aesop Rock, an MC who spins an enigmatic web of words like some sort of high-strung, whacked-out prophet, makes a striking mark with Labor Days. It’s his “memoir in several dimensions,” a complex, head-spinning journey through the universes that lie within his brain.
Part of the first roster of acts for Def Jux Recordings, the label founded by El-P of hip-hop innovators Company Flow, Aesop Rock shares an edgy, nonconformist perspective with his labelmates. With a rhyming style somewhat similar to lovable weirdos like Kool Keith and Del the Funkee Homosapien, but with the same word-heavy, complex manner as Company Flow, Aesop Rock somehow manages to be bombastic without being cartoonish, literary without seeming pretentious. His lyrics are filled with references to mythology, cosmology, theology and pop culture, plus a playful sense of humor, yet still convey a sense of groundedness. He declares himself “an epiphany”, “the now observatory”, “Jabberwocky Superfly”, a mystical poet who travels dimensions, yet his songs have a sense of reality which gives them genuine meaning, real relevance to today’s world.
The word “poetry” is mostly talked about in relation to hip-hop when you have an artist who blends the art of spoken-word poetry with hip-hop music, like Saul Williams or Ursula Rucker, or when you have someone whose music is filled with a sense of serious introspection and meditation, like Common or Mos Def. Aesop Rock is a poet in part because he lets his imagination run wild, conjuring up all sorts of intriguing images, and uses a wide-ranging vocabulary and a world of points of reference. Yet he’s also one because his songs manage to be abstract and open to interpretation, but still have a true impact for today’s world by touching on real-life issues pertinent to the lives of everyday people.
The intersection between creativity and commerce, between living as you’d like to and just making a living, is at the heart of Labor Days. “No Regrets” embodies this struggle through a character named Lucy, a noncomformist artist who does what she wants to do, no matter what people tell her she should be doing. The song is about individuality, about doing what you want in life. “9-5ers Anthem” is Aesop Rock’s most straightforward statement on the same topic, yet the explicitness of the message doesn’t mean he sheds his complicated style at all. Lullaby music opens the track, signifying both the idea of the American dream and the genuine dreams that people have for their lives. Then Aesop flies through a study of the average adult’s life, spent slaving away at a job that means very little. “I take my seat on top the Brooklyn Bridge with a Coke and a bag of chips to watch a thousand lemmings plummet just because the first one slipped”, he raps, building a portrait of America as a land of a zombies, fueling the strength of the song’s chorus, where the message is encapsulated. That chorus puts Aesop Rock’s dream of escaping the rat race in the form of a new declaration of independence. “We the American working population hate the fact that eight hours a day is wasted spent chasing a dream of someone that isn’t us. And we may not hate our jobs, but we hate jobs in general that don’t have to do with fighting our own causes”, it begins. He also handily broadens the topic, touching on the costs that conformity has in several realms of life.
Most of Labor Days takes a less direct approach to language and subject matter than on that track. Aesop Rock glides from old-fashioned boasting to interstellar space travel to descriptions of life in the city, pausing only to throw a handful of puzzling couplets at you. All of this is done over beats that are subtle and sparse but also skillful and soulful, mixing nods to old-school hip-hop with strings, varied vocals that add an international flavor, and some spacey, atmospheric passages.
“My pen bleeds and stains the paper with thought”, Aesop Rock states at one point. Whether he’s bouncing through dimensions of space and time or comparing a homeless man’s trumpet to the sound of an angel, Aesop Rock exudes genuine passion for what he’s doing. Aesop Rock creates music that is filled with a love for words, for ideas and for hip-hop. Above all, Labor Days conveys a sense of the infinite possibilities contained within hip-hop, a genre sometimes regarded as inclusive. And in doing so, he peeks into infinity in a larger sense, using a pen, a pad of paper and his voice to journey through any place, time or situation he can visualize, real or unreal.