Noted hip-hop wordsmith Aesop Rock cedes production duties to focus on making the most of his million-word vocabulary on Malibu Ken.
19 January 2018
In one corner we've got walking dictionary Aesop Rock. In the era of emojis, he's the dude who texts in full paragraphs. Verbosity is his calling card. In the other corner is Tobacco, the pre-digital production maven most famous for his work with Black Moth Super Rainbow.
Together, they are Malibu Ken.
On paper, this pairing may not make sense. But both artists have built careers on a willingness to go against the grain and get weird with it – especially Aesop. He wrote a children's song about an otter. Soundtracked the drawings of Jeremy Fish. Teamed up with anti-folker Kimya Dawson as the Uncluded. Made a music video with feline icon Lil Bub.
That innate weirdness is on full display here, from GUNSHO's acid trip sleeve art to the pop-out Malibu Ken mask (with elastic string!) that comes with physical releases. And for the most part, Malibu Ken is a success, albeit one that requires a couple listens to acclimate to.
At its best, Tobacco's pseudo-futuristic production puts just the right amount of off-kilter twinge on Aesop's dense storytelling, making it sound like an acid trip come to life. The swirly, frenetic synths on "Tuesday" are a great example, or "Sword Box", which starts like an 8-bit medieval adventure game before lapsing into electro-funk. Occasionally, though, the analog synths and word tornado don't line up quite as well, like on "Churro", where the production overwhelms and ultimately detracts from the lyrics.
The lyrics are especially interesting because they often feel inescapably tied to Aesop's 2016 album-of-the-year contender The Impossible Kid, with similar flows and lyrical passages between albums. "Lazy Eye" from The Impossible Kid used a simple directional juxtaposition: "Techies with the treble down / This is how we level up." "Corn Maze", Malibu Ken's first single, slides out of the first verse with that same juxtaposition: "I pull my hood down / I got some walls up." This happens again on "Suicide Big Gulp", which ends with: "Devil trying to keep me down / Somebody pick me up."
These similarities don't crop up too often, but enough to make Malibu Ken feel less distinct than it should – especially when it's mining subject matter that The Impossible Kid covered in depth. That album took a decidedly personal tack, discussing everything from family drama ("Blood Sandwich") to mental health ("Shrunk") to the death of close friends ("Get in the Car"). So when "Purple Moss" closes out Malibu Ken with a somber look at mental health, Aesop rapping "Every year his skin gets thinner / you can almost see the Abilify in his innards", it feels a touch out of place.
One thing Malibu Ken does particularly well is remind us that Aesop is funny as hell when he wants to be. That's always been true – see 2015's Cat Food EP or the afore-mentioned otter song, whose chorus is a joyful "My belly is a table! My belly is a table!" But it's nice to hear him shake off some of the earnestness and get a little silly here.
"Tuesday" is Malibu Ken's clearest highlight, which perfectly balances high-mindedness with hilarity over buoyant, playful production, starting with the grotesque detail of a mushroom growing in Aesop's car and turning into a tongue-in-cheek meditation on mortality. It's these moments that elevate Malibu Ken beyond novelty, where two distinct artists put their talents in a meat grinder just to see what comes out. The weirder the better.