Wednesday, October 30, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #022 - 'labor days' by aesop rock

So one observation I've made about Resonators this year is that I've wound up covering a lot of acts I would otherwise review on a regular basis, and this has led to a few notable observations for me. For one, it's a sign that underground hip-hop, despite its numerous flirtations with the mainstream, has maintained considerable longevity - and more to the point, most of the acts have been able to ride their careers into their second or even third decade of success while still maintaining a consistent or even fresh audience. Hell, in some cases the sound is consistent and timeless enough that to a predominantly older demo who gets into a more thorny, lyrical style, so long as the quality is consistent they'll stick around. And when you consider it's often not with major label support or "icon" status to build the huge cult following, that's extremely impressive.

And today we're going to be talking about one of the most respected names in this scene and one who has actually made a few of my year-end lists: New York MC Aesop Rock. Known for his phenomenal vocabulary and eclectic sense of storytelling, he got his start with university friend and producer in his own right Blockhead, and in the late 90s he self-financed a limited project Music For Earthworms, primarily promoted online through his own website and, avenues for underground hip-hop that were in their infancy of being tapped. And after a quick EP, he won over enough traction to get signed to predominantly electronic music label Mush Records for 2000's album Float, which featured production both from him and Blockhead and a few notable guest stars, like Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox and Slug of Atmosphere. And yet I'm not discussing that project specifically, mostly because you can tell Aesop Rock was still refining his style, with his manic-depressive nasal delivery and content that still reflected some rough edges - still really damn good album, especially given its melodic focus and how damn quotable he's always been, but the hooks weren't all the way there, the vocal layering could feel a bit slapdash, and there's an overwritten sense of anxious panic that really can't sustain its hour-plus runtime, even if it did match the sharp criticisms of the system that left an entire class of people struggling to stay alive at the bottom; smart enough to know it, but seeing no easy way out. And thus when I discovered in 2001 he had a nervous breakdown... well, sad to say it didn't surprise me.

But regardless, he had also signed to El-P's label Def Jux, and on his next album he was looking to expand upon many of the themes he had introduced on Float, which would become to many his breakthrough: so yeah, it's here, today we're going to be talking about Aesop Rock's 2002 album Labor Days, and this is Resonators!

So we've got something of a unique quandary with this album, because you can argue that Aesop Rock hasn't just remained relevant within underground hip-hop to this day, he's arguably received more popular attention in the past couple of years thanks to increased activity... which translates to me approaching an act that I don't just know, but of whom I could call myself a fan. Now if you know me that doesn't mean that I'm about to be any nicer, but it does mean that not only have I heard this album before, I'm also a lot more familiar with Aesop Rock's career progression to get to this point, and while I am inclined to say this is one of his best albums, I'm also very much aware of how he's improved as an MC over fifteen plus years, even that overwritten nasal delivery and bending rhyme structures remains very familiar.

And let me make this clear, Aesop Rock's approach to both delivery, vocal layering, and overall composition has improved. For one, he cares a little more about a solid hook and while he's always been able to find odd pockets in the beat to work his cadence, in comparison to the greater embrace of groove on later albums he prefers to just stack his ad-libs and fill his bars through binaural pickups that intentionally ramp up a claustrophobic feeling that might be appropriate for the subject matter, but definitely can feel draining on an album stretching to an hour. More to the point, while I've always said that Aesop Rock is the sort of rapper who can be understood if you're willing to put in the time and can appreciate his vocabulary, this is absolutely still the era where he's opting for less of the plainspoken fables and personal anecdotes that have given albums like The Impossible Kid their human connection and more for increasingly cluttered, dizzying wordplay, which with fewer hooks means that the album can feel daunting and less accessible, even for fans of underground hip-hop. Now all of that being said, Aesop Rock has always had an impressive amount of exasperated hangdog charisma, and especially with the framing of a project like this, it's not at all a surprise folks have considered this one of his most naturalistic and relatable projects in his early years.

And we should start with that concept and framing: labour and work, and a society that lionizes and promotes it while reaping the vast majority of its rewards and not passing it down to the people who put it in, no matter what the industry or job, be it blue-collar or white-collar as the opening words of the first song assert. In other words, if you're looking for a record that's damn near socialist in its ruthless dissection of industry, to say nothing of the social and cultural trends that reinforce it - especially religion - and the privilege that rigs the game and puts the lie to the 'everyone can make it' aspirational framing, it's Labor Days. But here's the thing about this album: for as political as it can be in dissecting the system, it's not one that's framed to be revolutionary or disruptive enough to break it - indeed for as downbeat as Aesop Rock can be, not only does he admit he's just as much a part of that system, he's also just as hypocritical for buying in to some extent, especially given how increasingly hierarchical hip-hop can be and his desire to outwit and best other MCs. Indeed, he's more striving for folks to do what makes them happy and chase those dreams independent of stacking cash in an exploitative hamster wheel, find some sort of inner transcendence outside of capitalism and the society that reinforces it, one reason his most plain-spoken song is 'No Regrets', a story of an artist named Lucy who never had 'dreams' because she simply did what she wanted regardless of consequences her entire life and found fulfillment. 

But at the same time, given how thorny his wordplay is and how relatively inaccessible his approach to this subject matter can be for people who don't put in the work - indeed, he relentlessly mocks the people who are only drawn by the spectacle and not the meaning and target audience - it makes sense that this isn't exactly a populist project in execution, even if it might be in intent. He certainly has plenty of words for the structural inequalities in the music industry, from the subs thrown at Dub-L on 'The Tugboat Complex Pt. 3' who owns Aesop Rock's masters for Music For Earthworms and refuses to relinquish or rerelease it, to the critics who try to curry favour with bigger, entrenched acts through unquestioned praise while snubbing the underground on 'Shovel', which in access music journalism remains a thing even to this day! But even there, Aesop Rock is acutely self-aware of his own fortune and privilege to be where he is - sure, he didn't have the silver spoon of rich parents to throw him into music as he describes on 'Flashflood', but he was fortunate enough to find traction if not stability doing what he loves, and by 'Bent Life' and 'Shovel' he's dejectedly aware of his own hypocrisy participating in this system all the same, and that's more forgiving for his audience as well. Indeed, you can tell he's kind of amazed that given how downbeat, pessimistic, anti-commercial, and self-flagellating he is that he has a fanbase at all like on 'Boombox' - and yet now that he has one, he's just hoping his message doesn't have workers pitted against each other to reinforce profits for the guys on top, given that on 'One Brick' he knows you can't depend on benevolence anywhere and 'Save Yourself' shows how his brand of real hip-hop has limited reach in comparison with those preaching platitudes and pseudospiritual nonsense. And thus by the time we get '9-5'ers Anthem', there's enough anger, frustration, and contempt for capitalist exploitation that it becomes the album's socialist thesis statement and all the more relevant... well, now, even if by ending the album with 'Shovel' and having to live in this society, he can't see or find the revolution just yet, so he sympathizes with those just trying to make each day work. If anything, Labor Days reminds me of Everything's Fine by Jean Grae and Quelle Chris that would come far later - an album to cope with an exploitative but fragile system that you can't unseat, but you still need something to get you through it daily.

And a lot of the music mirrors this same earthy but not dusty approach - there's actually a surprising amount of melody and tune here, rarely as eerie or fractured or abrasive as the underground material of the time that was getting released on Def Jux, but not precisely flashy or bombastic either; it's not an anthemic record, but it's also not trying to be. That said, if I were to highlight where this album stumbles at all, it might come in the production from Blockhead and Aesop Rock themselves - not that it's bad along any stretch but that it's not as colourful or punchy as the writing itself. Granted, if you give them a horn line, woodwinds, or a good bass Aesop Rock can make a lot out of it, like the flat sizzle of 'Labor', the interweaving flute and bass melodies of 'Daylight' and 'Bent Life', the spare bassy claps and sax of 'One Brick' and 'Coma', the bass play off the harmonica on 'The Tugboat Complex Pt. 3' and especially against those grainy gurgles and twinkles of '9-5ers' Anthem', and the skittering tragic elegance and surprising punch to 'Boombox' and 'Shovel'. But then we get beats like the weird fluttery cascades on 'Save Yourself' where the percussion is surprisingly complex, or the strings leading into the gentle patter of 'Battery' off the thinner hi-hat and trumpet/flute interludes, or the old-school hip-hop skitter behind 'No Regrets' with its flattened strings, cooing backing vocals, and scratching. Really, the songs I wind up liking the least on this album are where the tones just don't quite click, like the Indian-inspired warbles running behind 'Flashflood', or the slightly off guitar flutters and oily smolder of 'The Yes & The Y'all', and along with a few quibbles surrounding the vocal layering and tinny compression he occasionally uses, these are minor issues indeed!

So yeah, to the surprise of nobody this album is incredible - many have held Labor Days as Aesop Rock's best album and while I'd argue it does have some stiff competition, I'd also say that this is probably the album of his that has aged the best from this period, from production to interweaving references to especially its thematic core - it's not like capitalism got better since 2002, and Labor Days feels intensely relevant and potent even seventeen years later. And as such... yeah, 9/10, the highest of my recommendations, and while it might not be the easiest entry point for Aesop Rock, it absolutely deserves all the acclaim it receives to this day. Go back and check it out - definitely worth the work!

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