For a guy who bemoaned the demands and expectations of increased exposure on his last album, Aesop Rock has since been one surprisingly ambitious dude, releasing new EPs, dabbling in book publishing, composing film scores, and participating in that completely weird project where Nike hires you to make a 45-minute instrumental track for joggers. And now here’s his third Def Jux LP, a thematically focused album that belies the fact that he made it over the last two years when he was doing all that other stuff. Taking a similar approach to 2001’s work-obsessed Labor Days, None Shall Pass forgoes hip-hop’s favorite subject—hip-hop itself, and one’s proclivity to excel at practicing it—and instead examines the concept of time, how memory operates to create a blurred, impressionistic view of the past, and how it’s going to catch up to us all on Judgment Day. While “Fumes” is an ugly story of a relationship hollowed out by drug use, “39 Thieves” and “Catacomb Kids” both relate lighter tales of Long Island delinquency: “Garbage Pail Kids unite at the mall food court/And chase cheese fries with Binaca/They had to shut the school down early/There were bombs inside the lockers” goes the latter.
In typical Aesop Rock fashion, his barrage of lyrics creates moments of nimble genius that make you forgive his more willfully obtuse stream-of- consciousness blather—you can’t decipher most of what he’s saying, and sometimes you’re better off. And the beats, provided variously by Blockhead, El-P, and Aesop himself, are rarely more than serviceable. Still, when things come together, as on the title track, we’re reminded why many consider this guy the reigning champ of indie rap. As the album’s best beat swaggers along, our hero drops a triumphant Evel Knievel reference: “Woke to a grocery list/It goes like this: duty and death/Anyone object, come stand in the way/You could be my little Snake River Canyon today.”
Aesop Rock performs September 9 at the Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza, irvingplaza.com