Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

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Are Hip-Hop fans just failed literary critics?

I know I make fun of them a lot in my reviews, but the mind truly boggles. We’re talking about music. Music is an auditory experience. You can talk about the words all you want, but the question is whether it translates into good music. I can read the whole of American Tragedy over a dull Drone beat. The content would remain brilliant, but the outcome would be a dull and pointless experience.

Aesop Rock doesn’t do this completely, but he veers so close it’s frustrating. He’s clearly capable of being coherent, of providing lyrics that can be followed to a conclusion. “Lotta Years” is amazing. Aesop drops all pretensions, and tells in a straight forward fashion about feeling old and seeing how different the youth is. The imagery is both clear and poetic: “The future is amazing, I feel so fucking cold/I bet you clone your pets and ride a hoverboard to work”. It’s obvious and isn’t difficult to understand, but since when difficulty makes a piece of art impressive? What’s beautiful about poetry is how it sums up experiences and ideas in lines.

Not every song has to be this straight-forward. “Dorks” and “Rings” are less clear, but have lines that leap at you. “I think we’re all a pile of imperfections and flaws” is beautiful wherever it is, and it makes you want to explore what’s surrounding it. Even if it’s all gibberish, it’s gibberish that sounds cool.

You can only rap gibberish for so long before it becomes boring. Aesop’s lyrics are mostly gibberish. Analysis in Genius are interesting, but they’re analysis of lyrics, not music. None of these songs make me wonder what he’s talking about, make me want to dig in. I’ll gladly listen to an analysis of the lyrics, but at this point I’m not listening to Aesop’s lyrics but what people find in his lyrics.

For all his verbal and musical creativity, the mood remains the same. Aesop always sounds like he’s informing you how cool he is. That’s way “Molecules” is the second best track here, because for once it seems (It always seems, you can never be sure) that Aesop raps about how much of a badass he is. “Mystery Fish” does something similar. If Aesop goes about how out the box he is in the chorus, I don’t mind the nonsense in the verses. Every other song, soundwise, sounds like variations on these two. “Kirby” is supposed to be about his cat, but tonally it’s just softer than the other songs. “Blood Sandwich” – a song which is otherwise excellent – doesn’t feel like it’s about nostalgic stories about brothers.

It’s not a matter of mood. Sadistik mostly sticks to depressive and moody raps, but he can vary it. He goes from introspective to aggressive, self-loathing to contemplative. Aesop doesn’t have these tonal changes. The only difference is that some songs are less aggressive than others.

More frustration come from how Aesop hints at musical creativity but never pursues it. He can make a catchy song – “Rings” has a fantastic song that even if the lyrics were utter nonsense, the song would still be good. “Get Out of the Car” and “Blood Sandwich” remove all drums, and that helps take a more prominent role. There is also beauty in those ethereal beats. Other tracks are straight-up bangers – “Dorks”, “Mystery Fish” and “Molecules” are songs to blast in full volume.

Why then, doesn’t he take more advantage of it? Why make “Rabies” and “Kirby”, whose beats might as well not exist? If every track here had a hook as good as “Rings”, the album would’ve been pretty great. Aesop is charismatic enough to make the songs pleasant, but he refuses to take advantage of the auditory medium. He doesn’t realize the potential he has in mere vocals, instead he prefers to just rely his lyrics. Why not write a book, instead? I’m sure it’ll be interesting to read his lyrics on paper in my own pace. Listening to him isn’t fun. The ear is not interested.

Someday, maybe, Aesop will put out a great album where he cares less for conventions of Hip-Hop. He will realize he’s a talented producer, that hooks are great and that your lyrics are more interesting when the listener can breathe them in. It’s another self-indulgent effort, a glimpse into a great mind that doesn’t know how to communicate his ideas. I hope someday he’ll realize his potential, because I don’t need every song to be as good as “Lotta Years”. Just make them interesting as “Blood Sandwich” and you got a dedicated listener.

2.5 get out of the 5 cars

Ugly Duckling – Journey to Anywhere

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In later records, Ugly Duckling would often admit to feeling insecure and being nobodies. The sequel to this album opens with “Opening Act”, where they constantly talk about how anonymous they are and they kind of hope but don’t expect to be big. It’s the opposite of the typical subject matter. Instead of boasting how big they are, they’re cowering and begging for a little affection.

The irony is, “Opening Act” is a milestone in Hip-Hop. So rare are songs like it. Every line hits hard. It’s easy to follow, and you don’t need complex rhymes when you have such powerful lines. For all the expressions of lacking confidence, it destroys most Rap music. Before they made that song, though, they made Journey to Anywhere. It’s not offensively bland like most of its ilk, but we already have enough bland records like this.

At their best, Ugly Duckling make fun, loose Hip-Hop. The genre desperately needs such records. Too many rappers take their bragging seriously no matter how many Jazz horns they stick in the back. Wu-Tang Clan often sounds desperate for your approval, for critics to agree with how cool and badass they are. When the Duckling use horns, they’re cartoonish. “Smack” is the ideal song to put in a Powerpuff Girls episode. On Journey to Anywhere, they’re just kicking rhymes.

Now, if that was their purpose then fine. Dilated Peoples made a lot of good records using their formula, but they were focused. Their beats had good drums, funky basslines and DJ scratching all over their place. They aimed for a little aggression, too. Duckling don’t sound like they have any aim, so they fall back on dropping random words over beats that are just as indecisive. Sure, they sound nice and pleasant but I can get a similar vibe by listening to anything by Dilated Peoples or Jurassic 5. Why should I listen to this?

Some songs do have some concept. That’s before they found their wit and “A Little Samba” is the only thing that can stand next to “Turn It Up” or “Smack”. The hook is the primary reason, too. Laughing at tough guy bragging is fun, but they band doesn’t sound like they have fun. In their best songs, they emphasize the right lines. Here, they rap more smoothly and more hushed. They seek to blend in with the beat rather jump off from it. If the production was good enough to carry it, then fine. All it does is create pleasant sound. Just like the rappers, it’s too afraid to capture the attention.

What’s the point of songs like “Rock on Top” or “I Did It Like This”? They’re about nothing. Maybe if you listen hard enough you can find a catchy line, but the hook for “Rock on Top” is so lazy and desperate. I know Hip-Hop critics have a weird obsession with smooth rapping over Jazz beats, but that sound’s tired. Unless you have a personality, it’s worth nothing.

As fodder for a Hip-Hop party, it’s good. No track is going to wake the party. No track is going to help people get into the vibe. It’ll just continue it. There are a few keepers – the title-track has a beautiful beat, “A Little Samba” is cute and so is “Pick Up Lines”. Mostly, it’s a record without spirit. Old artists should make tired records like this. It would make more sense for the Duckling to release this later in their career when they exhausted all of their ideas. Thankfully they moved on to the brilliant Taste the Secret.

2 little sambas out of 5

Mobb Deep – The Infamous…

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The Infamous has a very one-dimensional sound. Every song is a collection of street tales over hard drums with creepy piano lines. There is almost no variation.”Drink Away the Pain” deals with relationships, and it and a few songs have slightly softer drums. They do little to break from the general atmosphere of the problem. This is both the album’s biggest strength and weakness. Despite its simplicity, it’s one of the more confusing canonical rap albums.

The Infamous‘ main attraction is what it does to Gangsta Rap. Although most rappers use this sound just to tell you how tough they are, Mobb Deep add a layer of emotion. The piano hits and the hard drums are not just there to provide enjoyable and banging beats. There’s something cold and paranoid about them. The atmosphere is not of toughness, but of fear. Prodigy and Havoc sound more scared than confident.

It’s unique in a genre that’s known for its hedonism. It sounds pretty far from “Gangsta Gangsta” or Doggystyle. There’s a joylessness that’s all over the album. “Party Over” is about the party being over. On “Eye for an Eye”, they rap as if they stick together only for the sake of survival. The alliance doesn’t run deeper than that.”Drink Away the Pain”, although deviates from the gangsta stories, best illustrates this depth. Unlike a lot of songs where rappers talk about the pains of being an alpha male, sex in Mobb Deep’s world is just another drug that gets the pain away. Prodigy doesn’t sound like a tough guy who gets every girl on “Drink”. Instead, the messy world of sex is just as fucked up and hopeless as selling drugs in the streets.

This emotion layer is why Mobb Deep have been praised for being ‘real’, despite their background. Selling drugs and running from the police doesn’t seem very fun. The fear and paranoia in The Infamous makes it more real than any other rapper that’s confused over whether he shoots more niggaz or fucks more bitches.

The problem is, this extra emotional layer is the only thing the album has.

Mobb Deep don’t explore the street life from various angles like the Notorious B.I.G.. They only rap about the scary side of it. All they do is add an extra dimension, and not much beyonf that. Most of the songs are interchangeable. “Right Back at You”, “Party Over”, “Eye for an Eye” and “Shook Ones” are all variations on the same idea. They’re all really good, but they all do the same thing.

The problem is that Prodigy and Havoc aren’t very capable rappers. They’re competent, but they add nothing special to their raps. They’re both cursed with fairly generic voices and have few catchy lines. When Nas and Raekwon pop up, it’s a blessing just because there’s someone else rapping. The production is also one-note. It’s brilliant – every beat here hits hard, but they still all revolve around the same idea.

Only two songs manage to rise above. I already talked about “Drink Away the Pain”. The other great song is “Temperature’s Rising”, which has some coherent storytelling that make for the best lyrics in the album. It’s impossible to choose the third best song. “Shook Ones, Pt. II” is pretty good, but is it better than the hard drums of “Right Back at You” or the piano in “The Start of Your Ending”? It’s hard to choose a standout when all the songs sound the same.

It’s a good album, but it’s successful at just one idea. Don’t expect the variety of Ready to Die. The Infamous is just a single song looped for an hour. It’s a good song that I can listen to for more than ten minutes, but it begs for a standout. It’s better than most of the canonical rap albums I heard, but it beg for a “Life’s a Bitch” or a “We Can Get Down”.

3 shook ones out of 5