December 6, 2009

Reader Review: Aesop Rock - None Shall Pass (August 28, 2007)

(Today's Reader Review is brought to you by Archibald, who, in the past, delivered an opposing opinion on Common's Universal Mind Control and expressed his appreciation for Lil' Wayne's The Carter III, an act which earned him more than a little bit of scorn in the HHID community. Today, he attempts to atone by reviewing Aesop Rock's None Shall Pass, proving that not everyone who listens to mainstream albums is blind to the underground scene. You should also visit his blog, Ruckus Brought, when you get a chance. As always, your comments are appreciated.)

Okay, so I think we got off to a bad start, friends. During one of the earlier rounds of Reader Reviews, I wrote some positive things about Lil Wayne’s The Carter III and said some negative things about the readers who ripped me and/or Lil Wayne a new asshole. So, um, sorry about that. Let’s re-meet each other, ok?

Hi, I’m Archibald (not my real name), and I’m an alcoholic (not true) and one time, I shot 50 Cent nine times (actually true). Now that that’s all out of the way, let’s all talk about our feelings, specifically those feelings with relation to Aesop Rock’s
None Shall Pass.

Aesop Rock is a rapper out of the Definitive Jux camp, formerly known as Def Jux before Def Jam Records threatened to sic their legal team on label head El-P’s ass for copyright infringement. Aes, born Ian Bavitz, toiled dutifully away in New York’s underground scene before signing to Def Jux and releasing 2001’s Labor Days, an album ostensibly about how he hated his menial job but also about a lot of other stuff, to (relatively) great fanfare. Produced almost entirely by Blockhead, its greatest achievement is without a doubt “Daylight,” whose couplet, “Life’s not a bitch / life is a beautiful woman” can probably be found in the 'Favorite Quotations' section of the Facebook page of your favorite bro who’s got “like, a conscience and shit, man.”

Anyhoo, Ian parlayed his success into a follow-up album, Bazooka Tooth, this time with production handled primarily by himself. This album was also very good, and included a track called “The Greatest Pac-Man Victory in History” where he raps for a good minute only using words that start with the letters L, S, and D, simply because he can. This album wasn’t as well-received as Labor Days, so Aesop went back to the drawing board, got married, moved to San Francisco, and released an EP and an entry into Nike’s Original Run series (which, for those of you who don’t know, is this thing where Nike gets you to make like forty minutes of continuous music that’s supposed to work as a soundtrack for your exercise session). He then made his triumphant return to the land of full-length album releases with 2007’s
None Shall Pass, this time produced by Aes and Blockhead, with assists from fellow Jukies El-P and Rob Sonic.

So, was it any good? Strap on your backpack and let’s find out, kids!

And we’re off! But, naturally, we couldn't start without a musical intro in which some dude sings and a dog barks. Then the drums kick in ,and Ian raps and displays his basic oeuvre for all to see – dense lines, multi-syllabic rhymes (copious/opiates/phobias/procreate/groceries/grossly, anyone?), and just general out-there-ness.

Love this song; when Aes tells someone they can “be my little Snake River Canyon today,” it’s far creepier and much more lecherous-sounding than such a line has any right to be. I remember seeing this music video on MTVU when the album came out and being confused as to (1) how Def Jux managed to get one of their rappers on MTVU, and also (2) who came up with the money for the surely expensive-as-fuck animated video. Anyway, this is probably the most accessible song to non-fans of the Def Jux aesthetic that you’re going to find on this album.

Starts out with half a drum-less verse, then Rock’s instrumental goes into full gear and we get a nice mid-tempo jam. This is something that you could actually bump in your ride, assuming that you’re addicted to prescription medication. The point is, Aesop is three for three right now. Oh yeah, and the hook’s pretty cool, too.

Well, they can’t all be fire, or else somebody’s Pro Tools would have started smoldering when the album was being mastered. This instrumental is bluesy and could probably be used as incidental music in some spy movie when the hero is sneaking around a compound. The problem is the lyrical conceit of Pluto no longer being considered a planet, which Aesop runs with and spins into a metaphor for oh, I don’t know...something. Though I love the man’s music, one of the turn-offs to his – and a lot of the rest of the Def Jux roster – catalogue is the fact that it can take several spins for these songs to start making sense.

God, Blockhead can produce the fucking shit out of some rap music. Where does he get these samples? Are they even samples, or does he have a room somewhere with like a million different exotic instruments that he coaxes this shit from? Oh yeah, Aesop appears on this song, too.

Actually, scratch what I said about “None Shall Pass” being the most accessible cut on this album, because with the scratched vocals on here, this shit almost sounds like Primo could have produced it if he’d traded in his soul records for music that came from the future. Breeze sounds pretty good, and Cage kicks his patented “Guess what, I used to be in a mental institution” verse (as opposed to his “I was abused as a child” verse or his “vaguely political/emo” verse) and manages to plug his new EP and album, both of which came out this year, but Ian’s verse literally punches everybody else’s shit in the face. In. The. Face.

I wonder when “Socialism” is going to pop up as an entry on the website
Stuff White People Like, because as a white person, I can safely say that lots of us fucking love socialism even though it doesn’t, like, work. Anyway, since Aes is also a white person, he throws some jabs at capitalism in there (“money is a tool to make the workers feel excluded”), and is lyrically all over the place, and not in a particularly good way. Have you noticed how these Aesop-produced tracks have a lot of guitar on them? That’s because his wife is a professional guitarist. I wonder if she got paid for playing on his album, or if Aes was more like, “Hey honey, I’ll do the dishes tonight if you’ll lay some guitar down on this track.” I hope it was the second one.

Aesop rights the ship on this one, by rapping, appropriately enough, about pirates. And you know what? That sounds stupid on paper, but Aesop, channeling the first half of his moniker and going it into storyteller mode, manages to sell it, even when he ad-libs “y'arr!”, because he tells his tale as if he’s relating something that he just witnessed ten minutes ago, even though he’s rapping about scurvy and buried treasure and shit.

This one sometimes manages to lose my attention for whatever reason. It’s not that it’s a particularly bad song (in fact, it's quite good), but at this point you start to get a word overload because Aesop Rock is on that shit where the rapper tries to jam as many words as he possibly can into the song. Anyway, this song contains a Boogie Down Productions vocal sample in the chorus, which probably led to the following exchange between Aesop Rock and El-P:

EL-P: Uh, you just spent like a third of your album budget on a sample of KRS-One saying, “Kill Television.” You’re going to have to produce the rest of these tracks yourself because you’re out of money.
AESOP ROCK: Um, okay. Well, my wife plays guitar?

One of Aesop Rock’s biggest traits is his fascination with weapons; he had an EP entitled Fast Cars, Danger and Knives, and he one time made a song called “Babies with Guns.” However, he's not on the same level as, say, a Curtis Jackson, whose entire schtick is based around the idea that he’ll shoot you just for giggles and then make sweet, passionate love to your special ladyfriend (when he beefed with fellow ass-clown Rick Ross, he made Internet videos where he took Officer Ricky’s ex-girlfriend shopping for coats and then hinted he was going to fuck her off camera; this was followed by another video that saw Curtis donning a wig and threatening to cut a motherfucker up). In other news, El-P’s beat and verse confirm that he’s still on another planet, musically. Take that as you will.

A song about shoplifting, and it’s – surprise! – good. And, again with the guitar, which Aes finagled from his wife through the administration of a foot massage and an agreement to walk the dog later on that day.

Is that electric piano tucked into the beat? Then electric violin? Blockhead, you slay me. Ever heard his instrumental album Music by Cavelight? Shit is stellar. Makes me wish I could get my hands on an instrumental version of this album. Not to say that the lyrics aren’t good too, but sometimes lyrics complicate things.

I actually saw Aesop Rock live at Bonnaroo (not the world’s most hip hop of festivals, I know) a few years back, and Rob Sonic served as his hype-man and kicked a couple freestyles too. He kind of came off as a junior-varsity version of Aes, and in this back-and-forth with the host, he doesn’t present any evidence to the contrary. Liked Mr. Sonic’s instrumental, though. Speaking of people who go by the name Sonic, did you see that video of Charles Hamilton getting punched in the face? That shit was fucking funny. (Sorry for the dated reference: obviously, I've had my hands on this Reader Review for a while, but I left that in because I, too, thought it was fucking funny.)

When John Darnielle isn’t singing codas for progressive hip hop albums (wait, he’s got another job?) he’s fronting the indie-rock band The Mountain Goats, who are pretty great if you’re into that sort of thing, which I happen to be. Anyway, this could have turned out as a disaster, because hip hop and indie-rock are generally not meant to go together, but this works out pretty well.

If you stick around for a couple minutes, the unlisted bonus track “Pigs” starts to play.

This sounds like it was cut in one take, if the studio chatter is to be believed. I can understand why the powers that be decided to tuck this one in at the end, because it’s (1) actually about pigs (and probably capitalism, depending on whether Aesop Rock read Animal Farm or not), and (2) more or less a country-blues song with a hip-hop stomp and some rapping on it. And there’s resonator guitar providing the melody and a kazoo solo to end this beast. A fucking kazoo! If this song were a girl and we were both in middle school, I’d ask my friend to ask her friend to ask her if she and I could be boyfriend and girlfriend. Which is to say, I like it.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Many of the tracks on
None Shall Pass are great, some are just good, and none of them are worse than just okay, although “Bring Back Pluto” is pretty corny in places. What separates Aesop Rock from many of his Def Jux brethren is that beneath his nigh-impenetrable web of words, there lies a soul. Oh yeah, and he sometimes writes songs about pirates.

BUY OR BURN? Like a stockbroker in 1927, I’ll say this:
Buy buy buy! You’ve got to realize that pretty much anything out of Def Jux is going to be like the King Crimson of this rap shit, and if you are okay with that, then pick this up. Plus, Def Jux is independently owned and operated, so if you buy this through your local independent record store, you can rest assured that none of your hard-earned cash is going to the demon corporations. Aesop Rock will send you a hand-signed pack of American Spirits as a token of his gratification.

BEST TRACKS: “None Shall Pass”; “Catacomb Kids”; “Getaway Car”; “The Harbor is Yours”; “Five Fingers”; “Coffee”; “Pigs”


(Be sure to leave your questions, comments, and suggestions below. Do you want to see more Reader Reviews exploring indie territory, or would you rather read alternate takes on more mainstream projects? Let me know.)


  1. everything aesop did after labor days is wack as fuck

  2. Not a bad review. I enjoyed this album, its not nearly as good as labor days though.

  3. is it bad that None Shall Pass is one of my favorite Aesop albums ever. it might be number one. not to say i didn't like his earlier shit, but i particularly like this one.
    my favorite tracks: Keep Off The Lawn. None Shall Pass. Catacomb Kids. The Harbor is Yours. Citronella.
    not that any of you careee, just my 2 cents.

  4. blockhead is a great producer. aesop foundered a bit in bazookatooth (his producing premier) and worked some bugs out in fast cars. none shall pass is pure gold. he's managed to mix equal parts extended metaphor and narrative continuity. I've been listening to him for about 10 years now, and I'm starting to be able to understand his lyrics. if you're expecting to be able to catch it all in a casual listening, you'll be disappointed. I find it usually takes 20+ hearings to really understand his more obscure songs. archie is pretty spot-on with most of this. I didn't know aesop's wife played guitar. that explains a lot.

  5. "what seperates aesop from his def jux bretheren is that he has a soul" wtf!?

    archibald, i would waste my afternoon picking out the misinformation here if i really gave a fuck, but whatever, homie- shitty review. don't quit your day job. and definitive jux was always called just that, def jux for short (def jam couldn't do shit). they still sell "def jux" clothing on the website. also, the krs sample was free, dubmass. aes doesn't work with his wife to save money either, you toolbox.

  6. Stop hating, I thought the review was thoroughly interesting, more so than some reader reviews I've read (most actually).
    And am I the only person that actually liked Bazooka Tooth? Industrial production has always appealed to me.

  7. yeah, bazooka tooth is the only album I halfway like by this guy...

    def jux is a killer label for the most part though. co flow is the best rap group ever also.

  8. Huh. the cover reminded me of DJ Shadow's cover for the private press. I haven't listened to this album though

  9. aesop rock is that wack ass whiteboy rap without rhythm. can't fuck with it. I try to be openminded and I just don't feel dude.

  10. I gotta be honest, I'm surprised there aren't MORE Aes albums on here. The guy's talent is real, and his lyrical skill leaves me feeling like dumbing down when I jump to anything current.