aesop rock 2021
Photo: Courtesy of Rhymesayers Entertainment via Bandcamp

Aesop Rock’s Overdue Blockhead Collaboration Is More Forward-Thinking Than Expected

Aesop Rock finally reunites with his longtime producer Blockhead for a hip-hop record less focused on nostalgia and more about depicting our paranoid present.

Aesop Rock and Blockhead
Rhymesayers Entertainment
12 November 2021

Fans of Aesop Rock can be split into two camps. Some follow Ian Bavitz’s dexterous, cryptic, and ever-expanding bars to the ends of the earth and those who complain that his best works were in collaboration with his crate-digging producer-in-crime Blockhead.

While Bavitz often tops scientific surveys as having the densest lexicon in all of rap music, some outre pseudo-purists feel that the best Aesop Rock albums were when Blockhead was at the boards pulling out creative samples and unusual textures to help enhance Bavitz’s deep rhyme schemes. Aesop Rock’s serpentine lines garnered him a devout fanbase even back in his early CD-R days, and over time, that fan base has led to several of his albums charting reasonably well in the modern Billboard era. His vision is singular and at times enigmatic, but his flow and approach remain hypnotically accessible.

While the 2001 release of Labor Days on El-P’s now-defunct (but fondly remembered) Definitive Jux label is often heralded as Aesop Rock’s masterpiece, some scoffed at followups like 2003’s Bazooka Tooth or his 2012-onward run at Rhymesayers wherein Bavitz produced his own musical backing, saying it was flatter or less imaginative. As anyone who’s actually heard the wild sounds of Aesop Rock albums like 2016’s excellent The Impossible Kid can attest, Bavitz knows full well what he’s doing behind the boards. If that wasn’t enough, he also produced several parts of 2000’s Float and Labor Days himself, making the comparisons to the “Blockhead era” fall somewhat flat. As it turns out, Aesop and Blockhead have never had an album-length collaboration… until now.

Following some personal struggles surrounding lockdown, Bavitz reached out to Blockhead (real name Tony Simon, who drops a new record under his famed moniker every 13 months on average). The two began collaborating just like they did in the Definitive Jux days. The result of their swapping of stems is Garbology, an album that rightfully top-bills both artists side-by-side. While there’s no doubt some fans will be excited by the sheer evocation of Aesop Rock’s most heralded era, the strength of Garbology is that it was not designed to trade in nostalgia. Garbology feels different, new, and weirdly understated on the musical end. Blockhead’s beats don’t show off so much as they support Bavitz, and here, Bavitz sounds on fire in a way he hasn’t in years.

“Lately, I treat every interaction as a living wake,” he raps on lead single “Jazz Hands”, “Thanking people close to me before the photo pixelates.” With song titles often attributed to single one-off phrases found in the verses, the Aesop Rock of Garbology is one that punches. There’s braggadocio, paranoia, and an increasing interest in the paranormal and the symbolic. Garbology is an album of rituals and graveyards, of mixed messages and lost communications, and it manages to walk a mirror-thin line between relatable and inscrutable. In short, it feels like a great Aesop Rock album.

“Every time an influencer offers advice / I feel years coming off of my life,” Bavitz spits on “Difficult”.While it’s a far cry from any sense of celebrity he felt during his Bazooka Tooth era (which infamously contained the line “Cameras or guns / One of y’alls gonna shoot me to death”), his relationship to himself as a rapper has evolved. The songs on Garbology only loosely adhere to central themes but mainly exist for Bavitz to get lost in his sense of interplay. “Difficult” is an easy highlight due to its lyrical showboating, as when Bavitz wants to brag and self-deprecate at the same time, few can do it better. (“Gotta double-wide enclosure at the back of the zoo / Got a cat named Kirby; he can rap good, too”).

Blockhead has rarely been one to make upbeat tracks, but the production on Garbology feels particularly desolate. The ghostly wheezing of “All the Smartest People” feels straight out of a 1950s horror film, while “Wolf Piss” uses old synth sounds to turn what feels like a John Carpenter score into a propulsive beat. Eastern instrumental string plucks sometimes soar in during a track’s final verseless moments. Overall, Blockhead is focused on keeping the spotlight on Bavitz, and perhaps that’s why his spitting contains this much more impact.

As Garbology has hints of themes but no overall, clearly-defined thesis, the lyric sheet serves as the sort of dense tome that can be parsed through and dissected for years to come. At times, Bavitz can toss out a one-liner so absurd it’s brilliant: “I can hold a wheelie for a decade,” he crows on “More Cycles”. At other times, he casually drops a line full of interplay, internal rhymes, and greater societal implication all at once. “You cannot domesticate the modern vigilante / Who increasingly identifies as energy expanding,” he notes on “Flamingo Pink”. It’s an album that’s hard to pin down, but deciphering its message is part of the charm.

Featuring only one guest verse from Bavitz’s longtime friend Homeboy Sandman, Garbology feels less like a deliberate sequel to a great Aesop Rock album like None Shall Pass and more like a next chapter. It’s a beautifully disparate slab of rap music that satisfies on the first play but reveals more of itself with each playthrough. While the penultimate track “The Sea” underwhelms and some of Bavitz’s shouted choruses could definitely be described as an acquired taste, there’s a lot to love on Garbology, up to the point where an Aesop Rock fan — be they casual, hardcore, or anywhere in between — may hope this collaboration with Blockhead continues in earnest.

“All the smartest people that I know seem to teeter in a paranoid state,” Bavitz spits at one point, and after listening to the surrealistic, funny, and sometimes downright haunting passages of Garbology, he may just be brilliant.

RATING 7 / 10