I love Aesop Rock. His first album, Float, was an utter revelation, different from any other hip-hop out at the time, and so blindingly intense that it practically took over my life. For about three months, I would listen to it at least once a day -- usually more. I found myself writing extended rhymes based on the legend of Icarus in an effort to emulate his passages about climbing rope ladders and lighting his cigarette from the sun. Sadly, despite this obsession, by the time the follow up, Labor Days, came out last year, I was chest-deep in a serious Golden Age obsession, bumping "Halftime" and "Welcome to the Terrordome" 'til my ears bled and tacitly shunning some of the more esoteric contemporary ish. Some of Labor Days, particularly "No Regrets", seemed to be continuing the direction of Float, but there were also tracks, such as "Boom Box", that confused me and made me wonder what Aesop was up to.
All this is just to establish that I'm a fan, before I say that, with Bazooka Tooth, Aesop, once one of my favorite artists, has lost the fucking plot. His vocal style, all tongue-tripping speed, over-enunciation, and booming declaration, used to seem appropriate to his esoteric stories and metaphors, as if he were some sort of priest or soothsayer recounting the history of his people around the fire. The vocals contrasted with Blockhead's atmospheric, minimal beats to moody effect. Now, though, Aesop's rapping mostly over his own beats, which show the distinct influence of El-P in their busy noisiness, and his vocal style comes across here not as atmospheric or moody, but as bombastic. His delivery veers between extremes of nasally derision and frog-throated gutterism, and he constantly threatens to become a parody of himself. But worst of all, his priorities as a lyricist have shifted from crafting obscure, mythic imagery, closely observed tableaux, and intimate stories to harnessing his utterly unique style to elbow-throwing battle tracks.
Now, there's nothing wrong with battle tracks, and there was always a certain combativeness to Aesop; we all laughed when he declared the he had "twenty ways to tell you 'Shut the Fuck Up,' nineteen of 'em are 24 bars long". But now that sort of self-consciousness has lapsed into something less funny and more ham-fisted. While this aggression used to be a nice complement to the more literary aspect of his persona, it has utterly taken over on Bazooka Tooth and populates the album with insults that are, though couched in convoluted language, ultimately numbskulled. On Float, Aesop spat beautifully constructed verses whose meanings were vague, or maybe just nonexistent, but he delivered them with such gravity we went nuts searching for their hidden answers. On Bazooka Tooth, he's still got the same dictionary of obscurities, but his changing attitude and profoundly altered delivery will quickly convince you that he's on some straightforward battle type shit, no matter how many third-order references the The Iliad he throws in.
Though "Freeze" has one of the best beats on the album, Aesop's nasal sneer is utterly out of control, and he snaps the end of his lines like a valley girl chewing Bubblicious. Contrast this with Float's "The Mayor and the Crook", which has him chasing down his obscure imagery over multiple bars, nearly running out of breath before finishing his thoughts, rather than pausing to emphasize any of them. The latter delivery is much more likely to draw a listener in, with Aesop playing the monomaniacal Pied Piper, rushing ahead and making you wonder what it is he's after with such passion. On "Freeze", and for most of "Bazooka Tooth", Aesop instead plays the candyman, delivering neatly wrapped packages with a proud smile, waiting eagerly for you to praise his sweets.
Unfortunately, they aren't all that sweet -- way too much of Bazooka Tooth is purely ego nonsense. Again on "Freeze", he chastises some unseen adversary who "Never got the grit right / Barked fame, but you never put the grit down". Replacing onetime profundity with cleverness, he tells someone they "Should've shot yourself in the foot when it was in your mouth". "We're Famous", a duet with El-P, is apparently a callout of Philadelphia MC Esoteric, but its simple start-stop beat never cuts loose, leaving it too restrained to succeed even in its limited battle context. Other rhythms are more compelling, but they still mostly have in common that they're simply poor fits for Aesop's style. In line with the missteps of the rest of the album, they're simply too big and demonstrative, where Float's were minimal, contemplative, and quiet. It's not a coincidence that the album's best track, "11:35", has the moody, restrained beats of Aesop's old producer, Blockhead, under the sort of closely-observed, politically-tinged scenes that have been important parts of Aesop's palette from the beginning. But when he elsewhere tries to get political in a declamatory fashion more in line with the "new" Aesop, he comes up with "Babies with Guns". Sample lyric: "Nowadays even the babies got guns / Diaper snipers having clock tower fun / Misplace the bottle might catch a bad one / Have a mid-life crisis when you're 10 years young". I don't know whether this is intended as a parody, or if it's just so half-assed in conception and execution that it's laughable.
It's slightly absurd, considering how far Aesop Rock is from being U2, but Bazooka Tooth is almost a textbook example of what happens when a previously struggling artist gets a handful of success The title itself is symptomatic -- where Float sounds spacey and exploratory, and Labor Days directly addresses the content of the album, Bazooka Tooth is apparently titled after Aesop's new, self-aggrandizing designation for himself. And this Bazooka Tooth, according to "Cook It Up", "is one bad motherfucker / He's a lowlife pimp with a lowlife game". Not exactly the kind of character given to profound contemplation. Hell, Aesop Rock now has a fucking logo, complete with stars and aerodynamic stripes -- appropriately militaristic for someone now primarily concerned with crushing his enemies and other doubters. Too bad he's not able to translate those preoccupations into art even close to his previous heights.