Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives / The Living Human Curiousity Sideshow
For someone whose chosen profession requires him to stand on a stage and talk about himself, Aesop Rock isn't an easy guy to know. The New York-based rapper often uses psychedelic imagery, and autobiographical details are scarce in his songs. Reviews of his records make note of his "lyrical density" (Entertainment Weekly), his "dense, cryptic wordplay" (Chicago Tribune), and his "densely textured word collages" (Boston Globe). The New York Times called his lyrics "incomprehensible." He's definitely not a linear thinker: on his 2001 album, Labor Days, he dubbed himself Jabberwocky Superfly and spat thickets of highly abstracted language like "memorandum bonanza banter clamp crunk out the fish bowl."
Musically, his new EP, Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives (Definitive Jux), isn't an atypical release--its surrealistic backdrops and spastic beats are solid, if familiar--but a limited edition of the disc includes an 88-page book, The Living Human Curiosity Sideshow, which for the first time publishes the lyrics to every Aesop Rock song. (Clearly his fans are eager to figure him out--the run of 25,000 copies sold out more than a week before its February 22 release date.) The book takes pains to present the MC as authorial: it's lavishly designed and printed on thick stock, and lyrics are styled in paragraphs as pieces of prose, while albums are broken out as chapters. When you have a chance to linger on Aesop Rock's quirky syntax and esoteric pronouncements--to take the words in at your own pace instead of his--he comes off as much less elusive. In fact, he can be remarkably lucid and charmingly confessional.
Drugs, particularly pharmaceuticals, are one of his favorite topics, as fodder for satire ("Skipper's out of happy pills again, he's in the neighbor's garbage. He's making paper dolls decorated with targets") or in puns ("Paxil Rose"). The lyrics to "The Greatest Pac-Man Victory in History," from his 2003 album, Bazooka Tooth, are one of the clearest windows into his personal obsessions. A nostalgia-tinged song about psychedelics, it begins with trippy images ("poison late late show starring Aes and his jigsaw face") that lead into a second verse whose structure becomes apparent only when you read it. It's composed entirely of triads of words whose first letters spell "LSD"--a whopping 39 of them, including "lazy summer days" and "life sucks dickhead," as well as extended runs like "Low self-discipline leaders see dead lung self-destruct."
These lines come from "Super Fluke": "Yo El, leave the keys to the DeLorean with Lauren at the office. I peak the 88 streak off with a fiery disposition and basic serotonin-deficient symptoms." The first sentence is one of his many movie references (in Back to the Future, a converted DeLorean went back in time once it hit 88 miles per hour); the second shifts into depression jargon. He later mentions Ambien, Nyquil, and tranquilizer darts, foreshadowing an image of isolation and emotional devastation at the end of the song: "Hope's a broken arrow stabbing blind through the fog in the log cabin, which gathered and hasn't budged since 9/11. Give him a couple close friends, a woman in his old bed while he waits. He'll hug it all with no plans to escape." The mood of those lines only really comes out when they're separated from the music. The song itself has a murky, grimy backing track, punctuated with saxophone samples; Aesop's vocals anchor the unsteady, syncopated beats, but while you can gather that lots of far-flung cultural references are being made, the production and cadences defy attempts at figuring out how they work together.
It's almost as if he doesn't want you to know that he's often after nothing less than proof of the existence of God. "Kill the Messenger," from Bazooka Tooth, approaches the theme by way of Saturday Night Fever: "Just trooper with a question mark machine needy, pointed at the heavens like a Bee Gee." On record, the pop culture reference is easy to catch, but the meaning of the line isn't; on the page, it's clearly part of a song about lacking role models, and even if the reference isn't quite accurate (John Travolta, not a Bee Gee, was the one pointing upward), it comes across.
Religious imagery often recurs in his lyrics. On "Oxygen," from Float, Aesop describes himself as the "cursed version of a certain Virgin Mary womb occupant," and on "Holy Smokes," a track from the new EP, he lays out some horrific priest-abuse imagery before offering family history to convey his skepticism about religion: "Long Island was Jesus every weekend. . . . Grandma was a saint while he'd paint with saints and bullies, said, 'If only you'd memorize your prayers like you did your Kool G.' See by the time I's old enough to know what religion was, I's Catholicism numb and truly didn't give a fuck. '94 moved out the crib and ain't seen a steeple since, while Knievel evil seeps into the Christian leader's pitch."
That brief bit of storytelling also suggests the nonconformist tone that Aesop has cultivated his entire career. "I did not invent the wheel I was the crooked spoke adjacent," is the key line on "Daylight," from Labor Days, but nonconformity, to him, means rejecting fatalism. A line later in that song tackles the phrase "life's a bitch," and his retort has become one of his best-known lyrics: "Life's not a bitch. Life is a beautiful woman. You only called her a bitch cuz she wouldn't let you get that pussy. Maybe she didn't feel y'all shared any similar interests, or maybe you're just an asshole who couldn't sweet-talk the princess." In this case, though, the metaphor is powerful when he raps it, but comes off forced and diminished on the page--it's meant to be asserted, not read.
The most common theme in his lyrics is outsiderness. Labor Days is a concept album about work, and on "One Brick" he characterizes his job as accommodating people who are out of step with the world: "I start my city with a brick. Then add another brick. And brick by brick I manufacture homes for fallen angels. I ain't no great Samaritan, that's just the way the game goes. Respect the polars, but acknowledge middle-value rainbows." On "The Yes & the Y'all," he's in league "with a flock of Chewbacca look-alikes and magic makers, hermit crabs, and New York City sewer alligators." Again and again in The Living Human Curiosity Sideshow, Aesop characterizes himself as belonging to a tight-knit group of fellow weirdos and misfits, and on paper his persona is much more vulnerable than it's ever been on record. He's put a lot of words out there, but the book is the first chance listeners have really had to understand the most guarded rapper in the business. Turns out he's a lot like us.