It’s five been long years since Aesop Rock released a solo album. But the drought will end soon when Rhymesayers drops Skelethon. In the time since None Shall Pass we’ve become well aware that Lil’ Wayne is hands down running hip-hop. But with all due respect to Wayne, he wasn’t competing with the true contender.

Wayne is actually a good comparison for Aesop. Perhaps typical of the mainstream/underground divide, the juxtaposition makes evident how different Aesop is – as he says, “I did not invent the wheel, I was the crooked spoke adjacent.” While Weezy has earned his respect with some truly jaw-dropping lines – “real G’s move in silence like lasagna” is one of my favorite rhymes of the decade – the complexity of his songs cannot even compare to Aesop’s work. Simply put, in a field of rhymers, Aesop is a true poet. This is Wallace Stevens versus Roald Dahl - it’s not even that one is better at his craft than the other, they’re just playing two entirely different games. Lil’ Wayne has entertained us, but Aesop “wrote the book that shook America to splinters.”

Take, for example, some lines from Skelethon‘s first single, “Zero Dark Thirty“:

 

Pray fortune return to his favor, swiftly,
Maybe in the form of a nest egg, maybe in the form of a Tesla death ray,
or a solid gold scene with something better to celebrate than powder on your face like a flat foot on jelly day,
m-m-moral compass all batshit, spinning in the shadows of immoral magnets,
Are we supporting the artist or enabling the addict?

It’s hard to not hear the last line as Aesop’s frustration that so many get stuck on the density of his lyricism, refusing to engage his songs and opting for the sugar-coated version MTV may play while going to commercial – “Journalists across the globe are officially critiquing my first eight bars.” Listening to Aesop, it’s hard not to feel like rap has lost its ambition. How could we listen to Drake and think it’s serious music when Aesop is alluding to Flowers for Algernon in the midst of equally smooth beats? Of course, that’s the whole point: no one else – except maybe Saul Williams - is making hip-hop the way Aesop Rock is.

Which is to say, no one is making sonic wordplay into an art. Take, as another example, “Citronella“, the song that houses the reference to Flowers for Algernon:

I stood before the glittery borders of new radius in search of the fabled city of mud and crushed velvet
What I found was a gutter where the love of entertainment meets the lust for blood and demerits
Cutters of the pie, throw your summers in the sky. Collar pop, jolly roger die motherfucker die

Dense, certainly. But dense from a spirit of pushing borders and growing a form into something new. Dense from pure greatness. Dense from an ambition to creativity, rather than fame and fortune. These are songs that offer dozens of interpretations and meanings, songs that are rife with possibility and experience. Aesop isn’t just a virtuosic rapper – he turns his talent into something that can be felt, if only his listeners are willing to put effort into something besides head-bobbing to a radio hit. As he puts it: “So chicanery was yours to engage or ignore.”

And if “Zero Dark Thirty” is any indication, Aesop is coming back full-force, with the power and energy to “spin hearts on sleeves into heads on poles,” as he puts it in the second verse. The song is Aesop in fine form, flying from cultural reference point to obscure space rock band to anti-chafing cream while lamenting the fall of…rap? inner-city living? modernity?

Roving packs of elusive young
become choke-lore writers over boosted drums
in the terrifying face of a future tongue
Down from a huntable surplus to one

Every great artist knows his place in his culture, and Aesop is no exception. Luckily for us, that means the MC will be continuing his barrage of musings. After all,

Sign of the swine and the swarm
when the king is a whore who’ll comply and conform

He also produced this album, meaning that the master is in full control of his product. While for some rappers that may mean the risk of audacious failure, Aesop has the background and genius to pull it off. Add in guest spots from his typical backers and new friends like Kimya Dawson, and there’s a cup brimming with brilliance. After all, only Aesop could have made John Darnielle‘s nasally voice perfect for rapping about zombies.

But Aesop also isn’t some pretentious artist living above us all. “What are we – a heart huckabee, art fuckery suddenly?” Nope. Aesop insists he’s not doing alternative/indie anything - he raps. The man twists what you expect, but he does it from within the genre. “You can dream a little dream or you can live a little dream,” he says, “I’d rather live it, ‘cuz dreamers always chase but never get it.” Aesop isn’t in an ivory tower. He’s still down on the street corner living – he just deserves his spot up on high if he wants it.

Skelethon will be a challenge to rap from a rapper. Even if Aesop doesn’t think about himself this way, the sheer fact that he’s the only one bold enough to write the complex lines he does without separating himself from the game – he’s still a spoke on the wheel, even if he’s crooked – means that Lil’ Wayne and company have someone to answer to. I just hope they’re brave enough to respond. But maybe it’s best for them if they don’t:

You can’t even have half a free second
the beat comes gelatin
You gotta aim, fire and the spider be model veteran
buried in merit badges