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Urban Mutation 

Aesop Rock leaps from indie preacher to hip-hop fabulist.

Aesop soaks up the view at his new home on the California coast.
  • Aesop soaks up the view at his new home on the California coast.

Indie rap's high-water mark occurred several years ago, back in 2001 and '02, around the time Aesop Rock released his seminal debut, Labor Days. The scene was bursting with great music: Sage Francis released Personal Journals. Atmosphere dropped God Loves Ugly. Talib Kweli followed the terrific Reflections Eternal with the masterful Quality. And, of course, El-P made his solo debut, the titanic Fantastic Damage -- which, along with Aesop's initial burst, helped put El-P's Def Jux imprint on the map.

But soon the blossom fell from the stem. Each of these rappers refined their respective deliveries, but subsequent releases lacked the original fire. What's worse, their underground success spawned legions of imitators -- angry but self-effacing dudes cramming polysyllabic rhymes and fractured flows onto dark, mechanistic tracks. It was an overdose that made us long for gangstas, the way one craves Die Hard after too many hours of PBS.

Aesop felt that backlash.

"Once you get past being people's critical darling -- in order to get the same praise, your new stuff has to be five times better than before, because there won't be that new-artist shock anymore," he said in a recent interview with the art-and-music website BrooklynVegan.com.

Case in point: Labor Days was a genre-defining album. From the brusque, minimalist sound to Aesop's eloquent critiques, it spoke honestly, with a force and intensity absent from mainstream rap. In fact, it would go on to overshadow Aesop's 2003 follow-up, the claustrophobic Bazooka Tooth. The New Yorker's flow was still hyperliterate, packed with enough pop-culture references to make Dennis Miller's head spin like Linda Blair's. But this time around, Aesop (born Ian Bavitz) was unable to establish his distinct verbosity within the dense arrangements he had created.

His new disc, None Shall Pass, feels like the product of a musician who knew he had yet to truly answer his brilliant debut. It's not as stunning as Labor Days, but it's easily his best release since. That's because it emanates evolution and engagement, not nostalgia and hermetic insularity.

The 30-year-old Aesop has admitted repeatedly that growing older weighed on his mind while creating his new disc. And his 2005 relocation from New York to San Francisco obviously exerted its influence. The move brought him in contact with artist and filmmaker Jeremy Fish, a talented Bay Area auteur.

Fish initially approached Aesop about composing music for a cartoon he was pitching to Disney. That pitch never materialized, but the pair started hanging together after Aesop settled into his new digs. They eventually collaborated on The Next Best Thing, a children's book about the creative process, and Fishtales, a short film. Fish then created the album cover for None Shall Pass.

Working in different media helped nudge Aesop in a new direction. Eschewing the braggadocio and swagger of previous releases, None Shall Pass strikes a reflective, storytelling tone. First-person preaching is curtailed in favor of illustrative tales.

Aesop's knotty rhymes are no easier to untie, but the narrative approach helps rein in his verbal thrusts. It's as though the filmmaking and writing encouraged him to "show, not tell." And by assuming a third-person distance, he allows listeners to engage in the stories rather than his personality.

The rapper concentrates on scenarios rich in detail and metaphor. "The Harbor Is Yours," for example, is the fairy tale of a swashbuckling pirate whose pride and greed leave him -- after one too many treasure hunts -- broken on the beach, his bones brittle from scurvy. (But couldn't it also be an allegory for mainstream hip-hop and its obsession with corporate bling?)

Another highlight on None Shall Pass is "Fumes," a tragedy tracing a co-dependent relationship between a lovelorn enabler and his hot, coke-addled girlfriend: "An object at rest tends to remain at rest/And an object in motion tends to remain in motion/At the same speed, in the same direction," rhymes Aesop with the authority of a professor.

Not all is dark, however. "Catacomb Kids" recalls the mischief a teenaged Aesop got into while growing up in Suffolk County: "Day-tripping on visions of chickens that looked like R. Crumb drew them."

After self-producing Bazooka Tooth, Aesop reconnected with longtime collaborators Blockhead and El-P. But None Shall Pass also finds the rapper breaking new ground sonically. The album has a warmer, more open feel, without sacrificing the bleak dystopia his music often invokes.

He even adds live instrumentation -- in particular, a guitar -- which offers a fuzzed-out undercurrent to "Keep off the Lawn" and ambience to the trip-hop-inflected title track. Also making his presence felt is DJ Big Wiz, whose scratching gives texture to 13 of the album's 14 tracks.

Most important, the tone of the album moves farther from the self-righteous and self-congratulatory proselytizing that often occupies indie rap. Aesop understands we're here to be entertained. And as a result, he has tightened the story craft that surrounds his trapeze-like verbal forays, creating more of a reason to follow the stunt-driving maneuvers of his tongue.

As underground rap melts into last year's flavor, Aesop has made a bid to stick around a little longer. None Shall Pass reflects an older rapper cutting ties with the past and relying on more game than just his rapier wit and chronic self-promotion. With this album Aesop appeals directly to the people, much as a filmmaker would: sucking them into his exquisite worlds and letting the story tell its tale. He may not be Springsteen or Dylan -- nor would he necessarily want to be -- but with this new disc, he's taken a step in that direction.

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