None Shall Pass
(Def Jux; 2007)
By Clayton Purdom | 31 August 2007
Aesop Rock raps nonsense. He always has, and None Shall Pass is no different. His gibberish is not of the El-P variety, which with headphones untangles as a lot of eager-to-impress punchlines tumbling over each other, nor is it of the Illogic logic, which though stridently poetic still carries a clear thread of intent, nor is it of the Ghostface variety, which despite a neverending opacity is just so fucking fly it’s retarded. Aesop Rock’s poppycock is a poetry of remarkable specificity and astral scope, drawing together Biblical and guttural influences within the same breath but doing so seemingly for the sake of having done so. The remarkable images he heaps atop one another form no outline; they are a heap of remarkable images is all, and delivered in a sly, knowing half-groan.
In my head, this coupling of scholarly eccentricity and ever-present smirk has always posited Aesop Rock as a sort of indie-rap Dennis Miller—fun, maybe, and impressive, certainly, but never funny. Astute readers, I realize I may be alone in these reservations. Labor Days (2001) and Bazooka Tooth (2003) are beloved records for many heads, but I confess to only a passing affection for either. Aesop Rock, after all, raps nonsense, and I’m an Illmatic (1994) kid. I majored in journalism, not English; I have certain tastes. Clarity’s a big one. For a long time, though, I held myself at fault for my inability to buy into this record which many felt sat alongside my beloved Cold Vein (2001); I’ve since accepted that I’m just not really an Aesop Rock dude. The science he spat so acidly on Labor Days never congealed for me, and so what remained was the mic style, which seemed to think itself too profound to bother acknowledging the beat. I am a dude who needs that beat acknowledged.
This, in short, is what has changed on None Shall Pass, Aesop Rock’s terrifically brooding new record. The style remains the same, but this time old boy bothered to make a hip-hop record out of it. Gone is the effusive cadence (like an angry, high nerd) of previous releases, words sputtering out and then left hanging in the middle of the measure. If it’s not apparent from loping opener “Keep Off the Lawn,” an Aesop-produced track that sounds, well, as it’s expected to, the four-on-the-floor title track will bury home that this is an album of elegantly dispersed percussive ideas, and that the lines that emerge from the ruckus come like puffs of dust above a stampede. The focus here, the fun part and the energy, is on that stampede, like when on “The Harbor is Yours” we find Aesop kicking syllables along kick drums, stuttering on record scratches, staying sibilant on fingersnapping measures. The beats are uniformly ill and he knows it, lassoing onto them at the outset and tossing off sharp darts and pull-lines with an inspired regularity. Forgetting the awkward John Darnielle guest spot, album closer “Coffee” defines syncopation.
Elsewhere we find verbal dexterity taking a forefront, like when Breeze Brewin heroically rocks a few bars over the big, battering drums of “Getaway Car,” or Aesop’s midnight blue confessional on the velvety swoon (see also: Maxinquaye ) of “No City.” But even when the music opens up to allow the vocals speaker space, our attention stays looped between their cadence and the drums’ respiration. It’s obvious to those (dozens) of us enamored by Aesop’s Nike-funded All Day effort that the dude has learned a lot as a producer, and that his production and production tastes have sidled against his mic skills to produce a unified artistic presence. That El-P accomplished a similar streamlining on this year’s similarly great I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead should produce a double-take for even the weariest rap fans. It’d be all too characteristic of me to plead again that Cannibal Ox replicate this trend and put out something, anything, please—so I’ll stop (I promise, for awhile) and be happy with what Def Jux has staggeringly, bafflingly accomplished this year. Aesop Rock and his labelmate both just put out the best (if not the most important) records of their careers. This nonsense just got tight, in other words, and 2007 took a big, angry step closer to bearable.