Aesop Rock has had a lot of coffee today. At 5 p.m., he's halfway through another cup and has just launched into a description of the Rubik's cube championship he got stuck watching on YouTube last night when an old friend ambles over to say what's up. This is the second friend the rapper's met within an hour at a very un-hip SOMA café.
"I don't know that many people in San Francisco," he insists, relaxing his 6-foot-4 frame back into his plastic seat. "I'm not good at going out and meeting people. I don't really drink, so if I go to a bar or a show I just stand around awkwardly drinking a Diet Coke." He apes a nervous, geeky grin. "Yeah, it's pretty cool."
Social anxiety be damned, the rapper's gearing up for some time in the spotlight. Not that he's been hiding from it: In 2009, he produced Felt's third album; in 2011, Hail Mary Mallon, made up of Aesop, Rob Sonic, and DJ Big Wiz, released its debut album (featuring, among other things, a playful ode to Grubstake, the greasy-spoon pride of Polk Gulch). And then there's the complete, unreleased album he wrote and recorded last year with his friend Kimya Dawson, under the name "The Uncluded." The combination sounds, on paper, like mixing battery acid and cherry cough syrup; in live performances — online videos are gaining fans — they play off each other in a sweetly subtle, strangely logical way.
But when Skelethon dropped this week, it was a reemergence of a different kind, with a hype level to match: The 15-track LP is not only the first he's produced entirely on his own, it's also Aesop's first solo effort, period, since 2007 — not to mention his first record for Rhymesayers Entertainment. (His old home, Def Jux, has been on indefinite "hiatus" since February 2010, and no, he doesn't want to talk about it.)
The record itself is an Adderall-riddled jaunt through a futuristic nightmare landscape. The undead figure prominently, as do both literal darkness and doubts about sanity — about human beings' ability to climb out of their own dark spaces.
"It's been a weird five years," he says slowly, when pressed on the album's themes. "My last solo record was 2007, and in 2008 my best friend [rapper Camu Tao] died of cancer. That was probably the beginning of a lot of recoiling, a catalyst for a lot of shit, really. I was regrouping, figuring out how to wade through life. I guess if there has to be a concept, it's 'shit ending,' whether it's lives or friendships or whatever."
Or whatever. A little over a year ago, he and Dirty Ghosts singer/guitarist Allyson Baker divorced after five years of marriage. "Which probably explains this," he says, gesturing at his beard, which has reached unruly proportions. They're close enough that he produced her last album, and she guests on his. Still, in more ways than one, the album represents the first time we've heard the rapper truly on his own.
On "Zero Dark Thirty," Aesop raps about "roving packs of elusive young" over an anxious beat that sounds designed for an escape scene in a zombie movie. His trademark stream-of-consciousness flow is electrically charged here — simultaneously scattered and more urgent than ever.
It makes sense, then, that he pieced these songs together from notes he's been taking since 2007. There are rich narratives here; they are far from chronological. He knows the sheer volume of references borders on chaos. And he doesn't care. "I haven't had a record in five years. Of course I'm gonna make a fucking long record with tons of lyrics. Way too many lyrics," he says with a laugh. "And I know any critic writing about it is gonna be like 'Well, Aes did it again, there's just way too much shit to go through.' And I'm like, yup, I know that, but I put a lot of time into it and that's what it is and I don't give a fuck." (Never mind that he admits to reading everything written about him online, "like a sickness.")
Fittingly, the record sounds a bit like someone who hasn't been outside in the daytime, around other people, for far too long. It also sounds like an artist who, at the age of 36, is actually learning to trust his instincts, no matter how unpleasant the process. There's no question these songs were written from a cold, solitary place; they're also proof, whether Aesop knows it or not, of a person beginning to climb out.
Two weeks before the album dropped, on a break from rehearsals in Houston, on Camu Tao's birthday, in the middle of a flurry of tweets about Moonrise Kingdom, what he ate for dinner, and links promoting Skelethon, he wrote: "God damn I wanna play Camu this new shit. Fuck." Then: "He was the most brutally honest critic of everyone I know. Really weird to make songs without his input. I need to take a walk." And then, presumably, that's what Aesop Rock did.