It can’t be easy for an emcee like Aesop Rock to find a perfect foil. He’s an enigmatic wordsmith whose helical surrealism packs layers of meaning beneath puns and clever turns of phrase faster than most of us can properly process it. And though he’s worked with his share of beatmakers through the years—El-P lending his sci-fi boom bap sound to a handful of tracks during Aesop’s Def Jux years, acid mastermind Tobacco on the psychedelic wormhole trip of Malibu Ken—his most prolific collaborator is himself. After all, who knows best how to musically contextualize a creative mind like Aesop Rock’s than, well, Aesop Rock?
Blockhead is the second most prolific producer in Aesop Rock’s body of work, having lent his beats to more than half the duration of Labor Days, Bazooka Tooth and None Shall Pass, creating the vivid comic book color panel splashes behind some of his greatest songs such as “None Shall Pass” and “Daylight.” Though the duo have never made a full-length record together prior to now, the making of a classic emcee-DJ combo were already there. Which is what makes the arrival of Garbology, their first front-to-back album-length collaboration together, seem long overdue.
The darkness that hangs over Garbology—an album informed by grief, a year of anxiety and some pretty heavy introspection—is neither contradicted nor compounded via Blockhead’s playfully understated beatmaking. If anything, the traces of neon in his surrealist funk collage only serves to highlight the black humor inherent in Aesop’s delivery. The buttery funk of “Legerdemain” adds an even more impossible sense of effortlessness to an eye-popping line like “Caught ’em fudging the numbers and hiding birds in they coat/Burning phones and computers inside a circle of stones.” Opening track “Jazz Hands” doesn’t even have a beat until its final minute, its cinematic wash of moody synth hanging in the air as Aes juxtaposes strained familial bonds with a disintegrating outside world: “Niece on the phone saying, ‘Ian you should visit more’/We could build a fort while the pigs court civil war.” Nor does the wobbly, nocturnal score of “All the Smartest People,” which sets up an uneasy canvas for Aesop to drop declarations like, “I don’t use shortcuts, don’t use pace cars/I cut through a graveyard just to cut through another graveyard.”
There are few moments on Garbology that don’t eventually lead back to some kind of memento mori—graveyards, ghosts “archaic evils.” And around halfway through the record, Aesop warns, “I’m seven days of levee-breaking rain, stay the hell away.” I might be worried if it weren’t for the self check-in a few tracks earlier: “You okay, dude?” “Yeah, you okay?” “Yeah, good.” There’s clearly a lot more under the surface that’s leaking out through his rhymes, but here he’s got a fitting partner in catharsis to work through it. Primal screams aren’t often such a feast for the senses, but there’s a first time for everything.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.