It’s a tough position to be in, critiquing a piece of art that appears way above your head. It’s challenging to take in such a piece of work, from multiple angles, perspectives even, and still come away from it with little understanding of why it is that you appreciate it. You just do. Such is the case for me when attempting to figure out why Aesop Rock’s Skelethon works: It just does. This isn’t to say that an appreciation of the album is based entirely on the abstract though. Yes, it’s lyrically complex and musically robust, but it’s also straight forward and even sort of funny at times. Still, there’s a lot here that goes right over the head.
“Silk screen band tees, take apart a VCR/Ringer off, canned peas, cabin fever, mi amor/Patiently adhering to the chandelier ta key-in-door/To usher in the understated anarchy of leisureforce.” If Ace’s one-time Def Jux brethren El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure invokes Hunter S. Thompson as it “unfold[s] like gonzo vignettes,” would the San Fanciscan MC’s Skelethon best relate to the thesaurus-scouring literary work of David Foster Wallace? Then again, how many footnotes would it take for the aforementioned excerpt from album-opener “Leisureforce” to make sense? Aesop Rock’s vocabulary is abnormally deep and his ability to pull from the most distant corners of his memory, juxtaposing impossible references with wry charm, is elite. Take the “free-form rap song” “Tetra” where he interjects a phonetic rim-shot into an oddball ThunderCats reference, “Wore the same hoodie everyday like Mumm-Ra/Buh-dum-bum.” Who else does that? (Who else can get away with that?)
Skelethon isn’t entirely abstract though. The album’s second single, “ZZZ Top,” follows a trio of youngsters as they discover their unique paths in life, the poetic “Ruby 81” captures a moment of tragedy-turned-triumph, and “Fryerstarter” is a tribute to one of Ace’s favorite doughnut joints. That said, they’re hardly straight forward, and without those footnotes might be a little trickier to follow: “Hazelnut raiders of the lost, navigate consecutive pastries like stations of the cross.”
“If only for an instant, Aesop Rock might seem a lyrical Jackson Pollock, allowing his work to unravel at its own pace without allowing transparency of his intention to corrupt his presentation. But his work isn’t as above your head as it might first appear.”
Musically, Skelethon is every bit as claustrophobic as can be expected from an artist who is becoming a “more and more isolated person in every facet of [his] life.” “Zero Dark Thirty” sounds a late night soundtrack to a hi-tech diamond heist, and the rollicking drum-play in “Saturn Missiles” offers a base every bit as energizing as anything from the MC’s archives. The album has an overall feeling of looming darkness though – perhaps a stemming from from the loss of his best friend a few years back. The pair of “Crows” tracks spotted mid-way through the release cement Skelethon’s aural tone, which is aided throughout by the likes of the Kimya Dawson (The Moldy Peaches), Allyson Baker (Dirty Ghosts), Hanni El Khatib, and Ace’s longtime collaborator Rob Sonic. But the LP’s hardly all doom and gloom though. “Racing Stripes,” for example, retains the playful feel of the recent Hail Mary Mallon project, telling the story of how an old friend would use horrible haircuts as an unusual method to kick-start motivation. Intentional or not, the dialog-focused flow of “Grace” is no less humorless, “Who was at the door just now?/Kids on dirt bikes asking you to bunny-hop the curbside/Really?/Yup I told em ‘oh he busy, he staring at his green beans being a total pussy’.”
If only for an instant, Aesop Rock might seem a lyrical Jackson Pollock, allowing his work to unravel at its own pace without allowing transparency of his intention to corrupt his presentation. But his work isn’t as above your head as it might first appear. Take “Homemade Mummy,” where his wordplay revolves around the mummifying of a pet before focusing on the instructional order, “take the brain out/leave the heart in.” All he’s calling for is to think more with the heart, and not the head. And maybe that’s the point of art. Regardless of how any masterwork from a skilled artisan might be a complex and layered production (as Skelethon is), an honest critique needs to come from the heart every bit it does the brain. In the end, even if all you see is splattered paint here, it’s difficult not to feel some sense of satisfaction and amazement by the skilled craftsmanship of it all. Or at least that’s why I appreciate it.