Underground MC Aesop Rock has never tried to be a star. His vocabulary has been analytically proven to be the largest in modern hip-hop. He tackles relatively simple topics with dense wordplay that are difficult to decipher for newcomers of his work. His production has never adhered to the bass-heavy trap instrumentals so popular on the rap charts. However, all of this and a hypnotic delivery is what makes Aesop a rewarding artist to invest in. Deciphering his wordplay about death, anxiety, isolation and his goofy cat is an intellectually rewarding experience not often had in mainstream rap. After 2016's "The Impossible Kid," arguably his most accessible album to date, Aesop has decided to form a duo act with long time electronic producer Tobacco. Arriving under the name "Malibu Ken," their self-titled album arrived on the 18th of this month. Of course, Aesop's considerable fanbase ravenously accepted it. However, how does the album hold up for those new to the articulate MC and his electronic partner?
In many ways, "Malibu Ken" is a spiritual sequel to "The Impossible Kid" from three years prior. In his smoothly flowing bars, Aesop continues to explore his own mental state and how it affects his relations with the rest of the world. The two opening songs, the 8-bit inspired "Corn Maze" and the playfully sinister "Tuesday", see Aesop observing the results of his extreme isolation. The more politically minded "Save Our Ship" observes the horror and chaos Aesop sees on the news every day. However, you would only know this after several listens or a few visits to genius.com. While Aesop has kept the level of clarity he mercifully used on "The Impossible Kid", it still takes a significant amount of brain power (or research) to decipher Aesop's imagery.
What makes up for this barrier to entry is the technical proficiency of both writer and producer. Aesop's famously smooth flow (or delivery) remains as tight as ever. His unique rhyme scheme is an absolute delight to listen to. His imagery and wordplay, as previously established, is cryptic, but in a good way. It forces you to think about the meaning behind his words, turning them over in your mind until the euphoric moment when you understand and can appreciate the song on a whole different level.
Tobacco's instrumentals work in perfect harmony with Aesop's captivating performance. The choppy tempo of the percussion surprisingly blends with the sinister melody in the background. It gives the sense of heavy energy: a negativity to match Aesop's lyrical content, but a kick to match his delivery. According to an interview with Bandcamp Daily Aesop allowed the production to dictate what he would write about. Tobacco would send Aesop a sample of music, which would then inspire the rapper to create content for the musical framework.
The content, while being cryptic, is also dark as Aesop observes the ugliness of his own life and the world around him. The darkness can be horrifying, such as the first-released single "Acid King", or it can be gross, such as the aforementioned "Tuesday". It soon becomes evident that the title of the album is a cynical punchline the whole album is leading up to. Tobacco and Aesop are stripping away the filter gloss and cleanliness put on life by pop-culture and, more tellingly, ourselves. "Malibu Ken" wants to remind us that we are not as clean, nice and perfect as we think we are. We are still human and that means life is messy and gross.
"Malibu Ken" brings together everything great about the two musicians involved. Aesop's insight and wordplay meld cleanly with Tobacco's synth-inspired beats. The end product is a triumph of hip-hop music and an excellent entry point to the work of both men.