Early in Help! (1965), the Beatles, after a long day of being Beatles, retire to their British row houses, open four different doors right next to each other, and walk into the exact same living space. Something similar happens in the documentary bundled with Definitive Jux Records' Revenge of the Robots DVD, which observes the various indie-rap luminaries of El-P's powerhouse label lounging about his place. Over here, C-Rayz Walz mutters freestyles in the bedroom; over there, label interns watch reality TV; yonder stands Vast Aire, showing off tattered lyric-crammed notebooks. And lurking in the background all the while is Aesop Rockgangly, bearded, world-weary. A fixture in the place, he's not above getting ragged on; as he discusses his post-9/11 depression and agoraphobia, El-P tromps into the room and interrupts: "Aw Jesus, yakety fuckin' shmackity." (Mr. Lif just bums a light.)
During that interview, Aesop Rock notes that he puts a lot of pressure on himself as a lyricist. But that self- consciousness has been coming out in unnerving ways, as when he dropped in on Hiphopinfinity.com's forum a while back and posted: "i can now go down in history for 2 things: the guy that wrote daylight and the guy that extended his 'falling off' to the utmost in an effort to piss you all off. success is sweet. imagine that. i am 'successfully' falling off. i win. . . . by the way, who do i have to hand the crown to now that i'm no longer cool or talented? lemme know."
If that reads like the bitterness of a man who seems distressed with his rising-star status, you can imagine how his music sounds nowadays. Ever since his 2001 breakthrough, Labor Days, it's easy to imagine he's outlined his modus operandi on a tattered notebook page, in double-underlined red Sharpie: "Trump 'Daylight.'"
"Daylight"the high point of Labor Days and an underground hit in 2001has haunted Aesop Rock since its release. He's spent the past two years inexplicably attempting to submerge and disown the songdismissing it as "soft," in interviews, and mocking its most-quoted line, "Life's not a bitch/Life is a beautiful woman/ You just call her a bitch because she won't let you get that pussy," on the 2002 track "Night Light": "Life's not a bitch/ Life is a beeeeyotch!"
THE DEFENSIVENESS is well timed, as underground hip-hop"undie" to its detractorsundergoes a backlash. Call it "Revenge of the Jocks"underground rap is in Flaunt Dicks or Die mode right now, and no matter how many times an abstract MC tells interviewers how much he gets off on Jay-Z and Ghostface, skeptics will point at the lyrics and crow that no "real" rap verses ever required the usage of a thesaurus to decipher.
Aesop Rock, twisted sonofabitch that he is, has reacted to that movement in a manner at which he's excelled lately: a teeth-clenched "up yours." Bazooka Tooth (Definitive Jux) is his most confrontational work, in both subject matter and his lyrics' absolute refusal to be quickly and easily interpreted. By the time the molasses Sabbath thud of the kickoff title track is halfway over, Aes has constructed himself as an armadillo-armored, diamond-spined mecha-rap soldier and claims that "journalists across the globe are officially critiquing my first eight bars." "N.Y. Electric" is a barrage of phrases cranked out like the notes of an Eddie Hazel guitar solo over a grimy, Juxified take on bhangra-rap, but when he slows down enough to make sure you're getting his message, he spits tales of Mead three-ring voodoo and tearing hearts out of paper renditions of "shitty rap artists." "Freeze," Bazooka Tooth's first single, goes even further: "You should've shot yourself in the foot when it was in your mouth."
But the wah-wah pedal cadence of Aesop's flow and the truism-warping snaps he litters his rhymes with come strongest when he slots it all into a narrative concept. In "Cook It Up," his neuroses creep into his pickup lines: "So let's just get a few things out of the way/OK/I'm clinically bonkers and hate just about everyone God's great earth offers." The dub-echo horn workout "Babies With Guns" features a diatribe about religion, murder, and hypocrisy ("If the Jesus piece around your neck is bigger than your pistol/It makes homicide okie-dokie and your God'll forgive you") before concluding with a voice-cracked tape recording of a freestyle spit the night of Jam Master Jay's death. And when he trades verses with Mr. Lif on "11:35," it's like Robert Altman gone hip-hop: short yet detailed verses devoted to the travails of gambling addicts, crime bosses, temp slaves, and one very pissed-off anchorwoman.
For better or for worse, though, his label's communal atmosphere can result in a few wires getting crossed and a couple ideas overlapping. If, as El-P claims in the Revenge documentary, Definitive Jux is as much a support group as a label ("We got friends who we lean on when we're in trouble, when we don't have our shit together that's what we do"), then it sometimes works a little too wellall of a sudden, you're not just a rap artist, you're a Definitive Jux MC, and everyone will know it from blocks away. This may be why many of Bazooka Tooth's beats have more than a few El-P-esque sonic touchstonessqualling robotic feedback, Deckard drums, and rock and roll, radioactive Bernie Worrellisms. It could also be why labelmate Murs shows up in a strange cameo at the end of "Kill the Messenger," where he badgers Aes to finish the album up and get over himself before adding, "By the way, Can Ox has not broken up; that's just a rumor."
And it's definitely the reason El-P shows up to drop Last Real Indie MC Alive fury over the bastard son of the "Grindin'" beat on the furious "We're Famous." That song opened up the double-billed Aes/El-P tour earlier this year, and considering it's filled with four minutes of the most nonchalant hard-ass verses El-P has ever dropped, an Aesop Rock album seems to be an odd showcase for it. But sometimes people just need to get their shit together. And if it takes the entire label roster backing you up to help you from becoming bitter and self-loathing, then by all means get by with a little help from your friends.
Aesop Rock plays the Showbox with Mr. Lif, Akrobatik, SA Smash, and DJ Fakts One at 8 p.m. Mon., Dec. 18. $15 adv./$18. All ages.