None Shall Pass
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Created over a 2 year period following his last release, 'None Shall Pass' unravels retrospectively, documenting not only much personal change that Aesop experienced over these years, but also scenes and stories indicative of all ages of life. Forgoing the typical stance of braggadocio everpresent in underground and mainstream hip-hop alike, Aesop Rock investigates and examines himself and others on this album; likening the title phrase to the inevitable judgment that everyone must ncounter by their peers based solely on their actions. The majority of production on 'None Shall Pass' is handled by Aesop's longtime partner BLOCKHEAD, labelmate and friend ROB SONIC and AESOP confidently producing a large portion of his own tracks, not including a trademark dystopian banger by DEF JUX label-head El-P ("Gun For The Whole Family") and features the MOUNTAIN GOATS' JOHN DARNIELLE on the album closer (and second single) "Coffee". DJ BIG WIZ also has a large presence on the album, appearing on 13 out of 14 tracks and offering a devastating rebuttal to those that say the art of scratching is dead.
Aesop Rock has always avoided courting mass appeal in favor of lyrically battering tomes and musically unrelenting blitzkrieg. With None Shall Pass, things have changed. There's nothing like a brisk jog to help chill out a few notches, so after the digital-only release All Day--an album in conjunction with Nike, meant to be heard while on a 45-minute run--it's no surprise that the following album from indie hip-hop's most aggressive MC is radically more accessible than his previously feral discography. Throughout, None Shall Pass supports the rapid-fire delivery and surreal world-view that longtime fans have come to adore, but finally, Aesop throws the masses a bone via backing tracks loaded with hooks aplenty and riffs to spare. "Catacomb Kids" spins a coming-of-age tale atop a guitar line worthy of the best in early '90s rap-rock. "Fumes" stutters forth on the most slithering, syncopated drum cadence in the whole Aesop archive. The ambling instrumental behind "No City" is a dead ringer for Portishead. All told, only a few of these songs sidestep a new commitment to accessibility that should mark None Shall Pass as Aesop Rock's breakout record. At last. --Jason Kirk
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For me, at least, this latest album was going to be all or nothing. If it sucked, then it meant I would have to come to terms with the fact that there might not be another Labor Days, and that Aesop might have run out of ideas. If it was good, though, then his mediocre last two albums would be forgiven as nothing but a phase, a testing of a style that didn't necessarily work. Aesop would be back.
Fortunately, the latter was true. But don't take that to mean that this is another Labor Days or another Float. This album has a different sound, a different style, and a different direction than anything Aesop has done before. In my personal opinion, it doesn't quite reach the lyrical greatness of his pre-Bazooka work, but it succeeds where Bazooka Tooth failed in that it is actually fun to listen to. The production is absolutely stellar (with the exception of one sub-par track from Rob Sonic), with head-nodders and melodic masterpieces throughout. The guest spots are well-integrated, well-planned, and few enough to avoid the disjointed feel that plagues so many rap albums.
Aesop's lyrics are as cryptic as ever, a quality that has never really allowed him to be popular in the mainstream, but has made him an icon in the underground. His songs require patience and active decoding. Anyone familiar with Aesop's work knows that the true concepts and messages of his songs lie buried in a thick mesh of obscure cultural references, little-known slang, inside jokes, and complex metaphors. However, it has often been said that this is Aesop's most accessible work to date, a label that probably lies more in its production than its lyrical content.
Aesop has put together an album to be counted among the best hip-hop releases of the year, sure to please both longtime fans and newcomers alike. Welcome back, Aesop. We've missed you.
class A releases a couple amazing albums but then becomes artistically spent and sticks around as a hollow shell of their former selves selling albums on reputation and glimpses of their former glory: Nas, Eminem, 50 come to mind.
Then there's class B whom you have to wait ages for new material, but when it finally comes out they continue to amaze: Breeze Brewin, Dr. Dre, El-P.
Then there's Aesop Rock, who's in a class of his own. He doesn't let more than a couple years go between an EP or LP, and seemed to drop amazing versus on everyone else's album in between, and yet with every new release the quality is easily as good as the previous one, if not better. It blows my mind when a rapper is as prolific and inexhaustible as AR is. Aesop doesn't try to draw fake buckets from his empty artist's well, rather I picture his well overflowing nonstop and it's all he can do to attempt to frantically catch even half of it.
Although Blockhead is back I don't really see this as a step backward toward Labor Days and Float like others seem to. Everything is so refined and AR seems so comfortable and at home (almost in an "I'm dope and know it" sort of way) just as he was in Fast Cars and Bazooka.
One nice innovation that worked out splendidly was the live instrumentation including the guitar riffs his wife lays down. As soon as I heard it scorch into the opening track I was like "oh, no you didn't just tastefully share a track w/ block and Aes did you! yes you did!" It works perfectly and it's yet another new take/direction for AR musically.
All in all, the realist in me keeps waiting for Aesop to stop either dropping so frequently or become a hollow shell of his former self, but the fan wanting both quality and quantity has yet to be disappointed. Here's to having our cake and eating it too!
That's all gone on this record.
His older style makes its celebrated return, making for an album less incendiary than its predecessors, but still a very strong effort. For the stories Aesop wanted to tell, I suppose his old style was the only way to do it. I was a bit disappointed on first spin, but since then this record has really grown on me. Once the tales sink their teeth into your neck, these tracks deliver some of the most concrete ideas of his career.
To balance it all out, there are still a couple tracks where the message is typically cryptic (Popcorn, eh?). The Aesop faithful wouldn't have it any other way, but since this album is...a step backward in my book (no offense), I can't help but wonder what this album would be like if the songs were as self-explanatory as "No Regrets" (off Labor Days), as communication appears to be what he's going for. Some tracks are, others are not.
Hope this helps.
That isn't to say Aesop Rock has become impenetrable; that would imply he's no fun. He's got enthusiasm, enunciation, and even hooks this time: The "how alive/too alive" call-and-response from opener "Keep off the Lawn" is custom built for audience participation, and "Catacomb Kids" begs listeners to follow the bouncing ball even if you can't make out every young, suburban misadventure he wedges into the lyrics. The title track quickly steals the show here, however, a stunning shake-up in both beat and delivery in Aesop Rock's oeuvre.
"None Shall Pass" itself slides past on a near-disco beat layered with eerie, broken children's keyboards and ominous clean guitar that Aes wraps his words around nimbly and capably in a way old-school nods like "11:35" only hinted at. The atmosphere is grim, certainly, but with generous bounce and a wry grimace, and it's a microcosm for the vibe of the whole record in addition to being its best track. I often miss the Aesop Rock who strolled through the grimy back alleys of his city just looking for a story to tell on old tracks like "6B Panorama" and "Skip Town" (both from Float) but "None Shall Pass" is like a quick drive through the same city years later when it's become too dangerous for anything more than a glance out the window.
Abstraction is an easy screen, however, and you may not notice the dark co-dependency tale of "Fumes" move over the line from frank slice-of-drug-life narrative to insensitive and bitter through the hissing wet consonants of his delivery. Thankfully, it's overshadowed by songs that are straight-up playful: The bongo-augmented beat to "Bring Black Pluto" is a return to what Aesop and Blockhead do best, and while the connection between demoting Pluto as a planet and Pee Wee's Big Adventure are tenuous to me right now, anyone who fits in a reference to Large Marge and the eye of Cerberus in the same song surely earns extra points in heaven. Of course, there's guest spots from the Def Jux roster, and while Cage talks about his fucked-up childhood and El-P talks about his fucked-up adulthood, the former absolutely tears it over the irrepressible drumbeat of "Getaway Car", and El-P is still potent when he's just shouting a few choice words for a hook on "39 Thieves" and elevating"Gun for the Whole Family" amongst the record's often sluggish second half.
None Shall Pass is a little longer than it needs to be; much as I like his slippery but assured flow on "Five Fingers", cutting everything from acidic groove of "Citronella" straight to closing track "Coffee" would have made the point just as easily. That final track is the biggest jump for Aes, with what's basically a live-band track of slippery bass and chiming guitar with shades of the Fixx, which he bounces merrily over. This is the one John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats guests on, and he serves as the sort of fat lady of the record: he speak-sings his strangely evocative verse in his pinched and equally distinctive voice, and then it's over. I applaud Aes' willing to experiment and his taste in songwriters, but it ends the record on an uncertain note, and sort of the wrong foot... that is, until you get to the hidden track, another seeming live track of gutbucket slide-guitar funk, once again darting sideways in the face of expectation.
What you can glean from a surface listening is an Aes who's still paranoid but almost loving it, grown somewhat bemused at the looming apocalypse. Part of the shine for None Shall Pass stems from goodwill earned by earlier albums that were more quotable and more focused, but another very large part is his artistic restlessness and his adaptable flow-- you know, the part that makes you want to listen to a record more than once. Beats-first, lyrics-second people have enough here to return to, and lyric freaks know there's plenty here to unpack. None Shall Pass is not a case to make him famous, but more a hyper-speed revision of what makes him worth following. Neophytes start elsewhere, but make sure to catch up at some point.
The opening track kicks us off indicating the album won't just be alive, but too alive. My personal favorite song, 39 Thieves, features Aesop showing off during a break down.
"We're not concerned with the community aloofness
Duke, we're animals, we just go where the most food is
Lower the toast, most formal etiquette is useless
Truth is you're equally expendable if spoonfed
Money is cool and I'm only human
But they use it as a tool to make the workers feel excluded
Like the shinier the jewel the more exclusive the troop is
Bullets don't take bribes stupid, they shoot s***"
He spits out while his voice and the music fades from one speaker to the other and back. The production on None Shall Pass is new and refreshing and fits nicely allowing Aesop to show his lyrical abilities. This is easily one of the best albums of 2007.