It's not often that I can start a review of a record by an underground hip hop artist and thank one of the biggest corporate giants of our time for providing us with the only taste of this guy since 2003 - but if it wasn't for Nike commissioning Aesop Rock for its inspired series of jogging tracks our hungry ears would have had very little to feast upon since the triumphant Bazooka Tooth. And Nike's interest is the result of a steady rise in the shares of this Long Island born MC/producer since his first album for Def Jux Labor Days, what some regard as his finest stroke. So None Shall Pass, his fifth proper full length has been long in the making and much anticipated by any hip hop head with a brain.
Aesop Rock is a rare commodity indeed these days, an artist who is truly pushing the envelope and who, if you're into him, has never put a foot wrong and is pretty much guaranteed not to. Some criticised the Nike piece, but for the purpose it was made to serve it did the job and though it was stripped of the free flowing lyrics I can imagine it would be good to jog to if I could ever get out of this chair. So with None Shall Pass we get our guy back where we want him and with production duties shared between Aesop himself, Blockhead and El-P the result is little short of dazzling.
Things have changed since his last record and though this is still unmistakably Def Jux much of the production has been simplified and the claustrophobic machine-beats are played down in favor of more linear, live sounding instrumentation. This leaves space for Aesop's fables, and though this has always been his strength they seem to rise to the top here and it's damn near impossible to keep up. There's no dick-swinging bravado with this guy, just complex stories bursting with mind boggling imagery and all told with lyrical dexterity that defies belief.
With the title track Aesop provides us with one of the easiest entry points to his sound in a long time (Nike discounted) It's built around a pretty straightforward beat and melodic loop and with Aesop's lyrics it rolls along relentlessly. As is often the case your ears try desperately to keep up with this lyrical pace as juicy nuggets of the English language are dropped teasingly close to our understanding but as soon as we've stopped to gather them up Aesop's way ahead. I mean when the opening lyric is "Flash that buttery gold, jittery zeitgeist wither by the watering hole, what a patrol, what are we to heart huckabee art fuckery suddenly?" How are we expected not to feast on this. Unlike militant label mates El-P or Cannibal Ox, Aesop Rock often appears to take a different route but on closer inspection lyrics like "sign of the swine in the swarm when a king is a whore who comply and conform, miles outside of the eye of the storm" he shows a clear opinion of the current state of our world.
Bring Back Pluto encompasses this albums best assets. It has a plodding and delicate bongo beat that is still bass heavy enough to comfortably float the words to the surface. As does the awesome Fumes. The pace here is recreational compared to this guys previous work but as always vast swathes of texture are lurking in the background and at the half way point these textures cleverly manage to flip the beat around to a momentary quickening of speed without you even noticing.
But as much as I enjoy and appreciate this sunday stroll pace it sure is good to get moments like Citronella where the Jux machine starts grinding out stomping, gut-wrenching bass and wooly, static-frothed beats. This is brought to a climax on Gun For The Whole Family. Any album on this label wouldn't be complete without the whole Jux family getting involved and with previous songs featuring the familiar sounds of Cage and Mr. Lif it's here that label boss El-P weighs in and interestingly it's the erratic apocalyptic beat that suits El-P's frenzied style more than Aesop Rock's and it's really the bosses moment and not Aesop's.
The last track Coffee is a real departure for Aesop Rock. The beat is backed by distant vocal harmonies but then as if out of nowhere we get singing, yes, singing, and it's not just any singing, it's John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats. It would be hard to predict such a partnership but since moving to San Francisco these two artists have been collaborating and this is the first glimpse of the fruits - and it's fantastic. It also shows the kind of creative mind we are dealing with here. None Shall Pass is a hip hop record and never claims to be otherwise. It's full of deep beats, cuts and scratches and everything you'd want from a hip hop record but oh so much more. If you can decipher it you'll see a whole host of source points that go way beyond this genre. It's like reading a Kerouac novel at double speed, actually it's like reading a vast collection of short stories with no punctuation. It's a turbulent sea of words that stretches on for miles and you know that if you dive in you'll get embroiled in a whole torrent of forked-tongued, whiplash trouble but you do it all the same. After all these opportunities don't come around all that often so you'd be a fool not to.