Created over a 2 year period following his last release, None Shall Pass documents not only a vast amount of personal change that Aesop experienced over this time, but also deftly depicts scenes and stories relative to all ages of life. The majority of production duties have been handled by Aesop's longtime partner Blockhead, while label mates El-P and Rob Sonic each make offerings. Aesop himself confidently produces a handful of his own tracks as well.
Review by Marisa Brown
Aesop Rock has been impressing the backpacker crowd with his intricate lyrics and dark, dirty, melodic production ever since he self-released Music for Earthworms back in 1997, helping to define the East Coast underground scene and validate the presence of white rappers. And even though he moved to San Francisco in 2005, prompting some outcry from New York purists, all thoughts of bright, funky West Coast beats and lyrics can be put to rest, because None Shall Pass, the album being heralded as the true follow-up to the seminal Labor Days, is as powerful as anything the MC has ever created. Once again Blockhead takes responsibility for most of the production here, though he's helped out both by Rock himself (who showed off his skills, as well as those of his guitar-playing wife, on the Nike/iTunes-commissioned Original Run series back in February 2007) and Def Jux labelhead and near-legend El-P, who also adds vocals to "39 Thieves," one of the few tracks on the record that has a fairly comprehensible message ("Money is cool, 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 shit," he rhymes in the breakdown). Because despite, or perhaps more accurately, due to, Aesop Rock's verbal talent and his ability to combine complicated internal rhyme with innovative phrasing and metaphors, a lot of his couplets, and even entire stories, are fairly cryptic. "None Shall Pass," with its great keyboard sample and helium-voiced chorus, is vaguely about society having to pay for its sins, the fantastic "The Harbor Is Yours" tells the tale of a "pirate," and features some great vocal stuttering ("And you should tell them where you situate the gold/That is unless you'd like a vacation with Davy J-J-J-Jones"), and "Bring Back Pluto" is more than an appeal to astronomers, though to who else it applies to is a little unclear. This doesn't mean that there are a lot of empty phrases here -- Aesop Rock is clearly a careful, deliberate writer -- but he can tend toward the experimental school of rhyme, which can be a little alienating. Still, his cadence, sharp and accentuated, and his bitonal flow are strangely warm and inviting, and it's hard not to get sucked into at least trying to understand what he's saying, trying to make sense of it all. Plus, the talent, both of Rock and his guests (which, besides El-P, also include Ron Sonic, John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats, Breezly Brewin', and Cage) is impressive, and makes None Shall Pass an album that deserves a lot of attention, both inside and outside the hip-hop world.
None Shall Pass
[Definitive Jux; 2007]
Aesop Rock's most distinguishable characteristic, his relentless verbosity, shows no signs of slowing-- for the mainstream, the uninitiated, or even fans who couldn't keep up with Bazooka Tooth. If anything, his lyrics are harder to follow now, and even with the 80-page lyric booklet from his last EP or the transcription of "Citronella" on his myspace, having the words spelled out for you doesn't mean it's going to be easy. When you've got a delivery this dense, all that's left for the confused or the impatient is the tracks, and the Definitive Jux roster has often (if not always) served particular tastes on that front. Luckily, Aesop Rock's latest album, None Shall Pass, is a diverse collection of beats-- from his classical-sampling comfort zone courtesy of the invaluable Blockhead, to looser more traditional hip-hop, to more than a few things we haven't heard him try before. None Shall Pass even throws in some laid-back rock riffs, some futuristic funk, a generous dash of psychedelia, and, of course, Aes' favorite ingredient: paranoia.
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.
-Jason Crock, August 28, 2007