It was more than a little surreal emailing a Rhymesayers publicist for a copy of Skelethon. One, because obviously Aesop Rock’s dungeon-dark mutterings were like the Socratic ideal form of Def Jux street-rap, but also because five years after None Shall Pass, the world’s skeptics began doubting if Ian Mathias Bavitz would ever start rapping again. A new family, a dead label, a litany of oddball sidetracks, and rumblings of personal strife and loss—you couldn’t really blame Aes for an impromptu quarter-life crisis. And Skelethon is a very single-minded, sober-hearted record: entirely self-produced, dipping in gut-busting, welled-up, radically efficient rhyming all streaked with the shadow, subtly badass insulation that Aesop has built a legacy on.
No feature-verses and no frills, no goofy party-cuts like “The Harbor is Yours,” Skelethon is dark, dank and dense. It’s Aesop Rock muttering to himself in a musty cellar, his vocabulary stretched across obtuse cultural debris like “cherry bomb” and “propeller hat,” and the self-designed beats are about as black as his voice. The record lives with angst, melancholy and a macabre grimness—probably the most focused Aes has ever sounded.
You could never call Skelethon soft. Sure he cribs through an opening trio of forgettable setlist-filler in “Leisureforce,” “ZZZ Top” and “Cycles to Gehenna,” but it settles into itself with a lot of elegance. “Crows 1” opens with a death-knell lullaby courtesy of Kimya Dawson, which Rock promptly detonates with his “black crows shredding innards/ the silhouettes are fencing lefty scissors” slash on a sauntering, seasick bass. “Saturn Missiles,” arguably the greatest single-act of pure technical flow this year, is essentially a heavy dose of Aesop Rock mythology on a scatterbrain breakbeat. The subwoofer bleat on “Tetra” feels like a futuristic club banger for a crowd that gets off on high-impact syntax—same with the eroded, velvet big-band samples skirting under “Racing Stripes.” For a guy who’s been journeying for more than a decade, this feels like a natural habitat—building the beats he’s most comfortable with and safely assassinating them with his wit.
Skelethon isn’t the sort of album you’re going to talk about in terms of weaknesses, but it certainly is clear where things have changed over the last five years. Compatriots like El-P and Blockhead painted past Aesop records with synesthesic flair, the gloomy keyboard drizzle of “None Shall Pass” or the music-box tinsel coursing through “9-5ers Anthem.” In reigning in and self-producing, Bavitz has made an album heavy on centralization and blunt-force trauma, but disparagingly lax on colors. These beats are sputtering and muddy, like primal thumps with a bad attitude—it’s tailored to fit the moody demeanor, but something is lost along the way. None Shall Pass has become the revisionist Aesop relic, simply because his grubby tones worked in exotic environments, Skelethon is digested in a single, subterranean suite. Effective, but occasionally flavorless.
In some ways Aesop Rock has been marginalized, mostly because of his friends, coworkers and former, scene-famous label. He’s been sent up more as a broad representation, rather than an artist. The way Skelethon dismantles those notions might be its greatest triumph. It’s a rap album at its core, with Aesop spouting such a catalog of dizzying, powerful and impeccably professional verses; anyone who slept on him starts to look very, very silly. The true joy of Skelethon is sitting back and watching an incredibly talented and incredibly keyed-in MC run circles around your brain. It may not be his best record, but it absolutely reaffirms why his craft is so vital.