As with every genre, hip hop has always had its tropes and trends; similar themes and subjects have been consistently explored and slapped on wax for the last forty years. But there are some rap songs that have materialised during that time, which have eschewed the more familiar themes and instead taken delight in the whimsical, the weird and the wonderful. See: Laundry by R.A.P. Ferreira, from his excellent Purple Moonlight Pages album, for a recent example.
But it’s Aesop Rock who has been the brains behind a number of my favourites that have emerged over the years, and so below I have outlined six of the best from the Rhymesayers artist. It provides some insight into why he has been one of my favourite rappers for the last 15 years, thanks in part to his ability to rap about any topic and deliver it with that unique command of language he brings to his lyricism.
The Harbor Is Yours
(None Shall Pass, 2007)
This is actually a redo of one of his earlier songs, Fishtales, which was released in the previous year. The original could also have been included in this list, as it tells the story of a fisherman and his scaled nemesis – aka The One That Got Away. But on the redo, Aesop takes it to the next level with a doomed love story, involving a pirate and a mermaid. Basically a pirate spots a mermaid from his boat one day and becomes captivated. He doesn’t tell his crew because he thinks they will mock him, leading to some of the best lyrics in the track, so instead he ramps us his pillaging and general pirate related skulduggery, before eventually returning to the same location 10 years later. He is reunited with his mermaid, but it doesn’t end so well, as Ace explains, “I wish I could tell you that it ended happy, pretend like his bones weren’t practically snapping. Pretend like her gills didn’t dry up and suffer, but that’s a half-dead pirate and a fish outta water”.
Favourite line: “Yarr, heckled by the swabbies at the bar / He’ll be the laughing stock of the Barbary Coast War. Like this dude either got two glass eyes / Or he wearing his patch on the wrong s-s-s-side”
I’d hazard a guess and say that this track is based on a true story, or at least that’s how it comes across in the details. The titular Ruby is a small child who, while her parents are absorbed by the goings on at their July 4th party, manages to escape the confines of her stroller and heads towards the pool in the back garden to get a better a look at the fireworks. She falls in and starts to drown before her parents are even aware of what is happening. Luckily for them though, their dog had been keeping tabs on the tiny bundle and promptly throws himself into the pool, before dragging Ruby back to land, where she is resuscitated by the paramedics. One verse, no hook, it packs a hell of a punch and remains one of my favourites from him full stop.
Favourite line: “Past the pyrotechnics undetected and invisible / Woke the sleeping beagle skipping toward the kidney swimming pool”
(Labor Days, 2001)
To my mind, this is one of the songs that enticed fans from other genres to first explore Aesop Rock’s music, largely thanks to the subject matter. The song tells the tale of a girl called Lucy, who lives her life outside the usual societal parameters. She hardly ever speaks and chooses not to interact with the other children in the neighbourhood, instead turning all her attention to the chalk portraits she draws on the pavement outside her home. Then was see her at 37, still living a sheltered life and still avoiding social situations, prompting her neighbours to label her strange. The art is a constant in her life and seems to provide her with all she needs. Finally we find her on her death bed at the ripe old age of 87, where she finally decides to tell her nurse the secret to her happiness. I remember the first time I heard it back in the early 2000’s and I’m pleased to say it has lost none of its appeal in the interim; still one of the most original rap songs I’ve ever heard.
Favourite line: “She had a man now: Rico, similar, hermit / They would only see each other once or twice a week on purpose. They appreciated space and Rico was an artist too / So they’d connect on Saturdays to share the pictures that they drew.”
Cook It Up
(Bazooka Tooth, 2003)
Another personal favourite here, as Aesop blends some killer funk strains with the best failed chat-up attempt ever recorded. A definite antithesis for the usual brand of bravado that permeates rap and turns every MC into an alleged ladykiller. Aesop plays the role of a man who seems to have everything a woman isn’t looking for, as he tries to win the favour of ‘Jenny’ who seems a little disinterested in his advances, to say the least. He tries to impress her with some frankly weird brags, while simultaneously failing to catch on to the fact that her silence is not her playing hard to get. He continues to make the case for their union before allowing Jenny to respond in kind. She does just that, resulting in one of the best last lines in musical history (see below).
Favourite line: “So there it is: game. I mean it’s not like I’m sweating you / Cos when it comes down to it, most y’all females are the same. But now it’s your turn baby, spit it out / “Okay,” she punched me dead in the fucking mouth and walked away.”
(The Impossible Kid, 2016)
Another thing I’ve always admired about Aesop Rock, is his openness and honesty when it comes to mental health. I think I first became aware of it when I heard One of Four, which is basically an open letter to the four people who helped him through a breakdown. The death of his friend, Camu Tao, came later and triggered what would be another few years of mental anguish, which he speaks about on Get Out of the Car. On that same album, he also gave us Shrunk which his amusing account of finally taking the dive into therapy. He makes no secret of his pessimism about the whole thing, as well as his reluctance to participate, right up until the last line where, for all his moaning, he graciously accepts another session. Mental health isn’t spoken about enough in music and definitely not by men in music, so exceptions like this are important and necessary. Being able to shine a humorous light on a subject which a lot of people struggle to engage with, helps relieve some of the pressure and allows for more engagement and discussion.
Favourite line: “You pack up all your manias, sitting in the waiting room / You’re dreaming of Arcadia, you’re feeling like a baby tooth.”
(The Impossible Kid, 2016)
This song comes directly after Shrunk on the album and serves as a sort of final act on Ace’s therapy journey. Kirby is the name of the cat he decides to bring into his life, after recommendations from his therapist – “Fifteen years taking prescriptions / Now a shrink like, I don’t know, maybe get a kitten” – prompting him to pen this ode to the furry friend. It’s the sort of whimsical approach that Aesop Rock does so well and another fine example of his brilliance at translating any situation into rap form. Commentary on Kirby’s progress is accompanied by the first strands of feline affection, leading to some of my favourite lines on the album (“Mouser in training, nap on the toaster / Decorate her cubicle with dogs playing poker” etc.).
Favourite line: “Cold met a cat lady in a parking lot / She got the heroes of tomorrow in a cardboard box.”
Rings (The Impossible Kid)
Bring Back Pluto (None Shall Pass)
Racing Stripes (Skelethon)
9-5ers Anthem (Labor Days)
Grace (The Impossible Kid)