PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Aesop Rock and Tobacco Are Malibu Ken and They're Here to Get Weird

Noted hip-hop wordsmith Aesop Rock cedes production duties to focus on making the most of his million-word vocabulary on Malibu Ken.

Malibu Ken
Malibu Ken

Rhymesayers Entertainment

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.

Related Articles Around the Web

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Nevill's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.