“I wrote this on a self-destructing memo,” notes Aesop Rock on “Cycles To Gehenna,” from his first solo album in half a decade. In rap years, that’s plenty of time to self-destruct. Instead, he backed off following a stretch in which each successive Aesop Rock album after the breakthrough Labor Days grew muddier and more esoteric. That sort of break sometimes causes artists to lose their way, but after his label, Def Jux, dissolved, Rock released a fun bull session with Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz last year as the supergroup Hail Mary Mallon. It was the most traditionally hip-hop, verse-trading-on-the-blacktop album of his whole career, and that directness seems to be the fresh air he needed to pursue a new Aesop Rock album.
Once Rock opens his mouth on Skelethon there’s nary a respite until the wrinkled-nose voice of anti-folkie Kimya Dawson breaks the album in half, over the tersely beautiful intro to “Crows 1.” It’s as if Rock had been hemorrhaging rhymes, having stored words for so long. The gracious beats also deserve credit for balancing the forbidding noise familiar from his Def Jux years. On “Racing Stripes,” an acid-jazz intro gives way to hallway-echoing drumrolls, while the gamelan-tinted vibraphone that cradles “Fryerstarter” is almost sexy. There’s never been blown-speaker boom-bap like “Tetra” on an Aesop Rock album before; and the occasional finished thought, like “This is why we can’t have nice things” or “When I see your picture I draw dicks on it,” helps keep him earthbound.
Which isn’t to say that Skelethon is any less challenging than Rock’s other work. On the opening “Leisureforce,” the chorus offers a scramble of words like “winner” and “crusher” next to verses littered with Scrabble specials like “lummox” and “lockjawed.” When he narrates in “Homemade Mummy” that “we only spoke in letters cut from magazines,” he could be talking about the letters page or ransom notes. But the chorus sums up why Skelethon sits comfortably with his best albums: “Take the brain out / Leave the heart in.”