November 6, 2003

Aesop Rock: Let Aesop Tell You a Fable

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This review should have appeared over a month ago, but somehow, news of Bazooka Tooth’s release escaped us, as befitting Aesop Rock’s underground aesthetic. A key contributor to the New York-based independent hip-hop record label, Definitive Jux (Def Jux), Aesop Rock has been spitting his deeply personal, unique flow for nearly a decade now. His latest effort, Bazooka Tooth, presents Aesop’s most fully produced album to date, complete with his signature, nasal-toned, intellectual rhymes and raw, electro-funk beats. This time around, emcee, producer, and label head EL-P takes the recording helm and steers Aesop further into the classic Def Jux territory of alternating, heavy beat patterns combined with an occasional melodic hook, while the influence of former producer/collaborator Blockhead is felt less: a change that results in a more dynamic and diverse album. Though some may long for the straightforward composition of Aesop’s previous work, the New York emcee isn’t trying to please listeners. He’s focused on breaking new ground.

Using original beat patterns, not samples, an uncharacteristically jarring voice, instead of a smooth tone, peculiar phrasing over straightforward delivery, Aesop Rock devotes his artistic prowess in defiance of the norm. By birth Ian Bravitz, Aesop Rock challenges the listener to forge new connections through his mile-a-minute flow and obtuse rhymes.

On Bazooka Tooth, we find Aesop taking on an alter ego of sorts: he becomes bazooka tooth himself, a man whose main weapon is a rocket in his mouth — fitting for a lyricist adept at dropping bombs. Backed by Def Jux family and friends (including El-P, Mr. Lif, P.F.A.C. and Camp Lo), Aesop’s voice feels stronger, as if propelled by the numbers of his posse and his growing confidence after a series of successful releases. This is not to say that his newfound popularity in the independent hip-hop world has led him to rest on his laurels, rather Aesop remains as emotional as ever and channels his vitriol with an uncanny ease.

“Babies with Guns” shows Aesop utilizing his flow to rail against the corruption of youth in America. The chorus is particularly poignant, “Nowadays even the babies got guns/ diapers snipers having clock tower fun/ misplace the bottle might have a bad one/ have a mid-life crisis when your ten years young.” The relatively sparse but heavy beat doesn’t allow any room for the listener’s attention to wander, and in turn keeps the focus on Sop’s flow, as he conjures up provocative images of lost innocence. Though Aesop takes on ripe socio-political material, there are plenty of lighter moments on the album. For instance, “Cook it Up” features Aesop and P.F.A.C. humorously rhyming about the female species over a funk-orchestrated Curtis Mayfield-era beat. Indeed, the album presents Aesop’s many lively idiosyncrasies.

At ease making moral declarations, social satire, or self-deprecating jokes, Aesop Rock reveals an impressive versatility and range throughout Bazooka Tooth. It takes many a listen just to get beneath the surface of Aesop’s dense lyrics. But when we are able to break through the fa