"What should I rap about?" is not a question that keeps many MCs awake at night. Bitches, weed, parties, money, murder and mic skills -- these six topics can make an entire career. Even when underground MCs branch out, the subject matter's usually limited to such preordained topics as science fiction and conspiracy theories.
But what about Dante's Inferno? The rituals of agrarian villages? The Weather Channel? Bilbo Baggins? Minimum-wage jobs? To Aesop Rock, who covers all these topics and many, many more, in just the first few tracks of Float, there's a wide world outside hip-hop clichés, and he seems intent on exploring them all. He resembles nerdy mic-masters Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Aceyalone, but his eclecticism and distance from hip-hop tropes put him closer to a mellow, white Saul Williams.
But to even get to the topics, you have to deal with his flow, which is so blindingly literate and well-crafted that it borders on the baroque. Aesop Rock deploys alliteration, internal rhymes, slant rhymes, syncopation and metaphor with the sure hand of a dedicated poet, and he delivers them with such speedy precision that it's easy to get lost in the barrage of syllables and phrases. Just try to decode the following lines, from "Big Bang": "By stitching together esteemed congruents (beautifully)/I peel back carts and lodge Greek physics in the chambers/Cauterized the wound and heads like 'Gimme gimme something major'/Roadside prophetic, I send well/Developed in a mummy ribbon system /Blistering in a wishing well."
Parsing these lyrics is well nigh impossible while they're flying by, but reading them in print doesn't do them justice; maybe the stream-of-consciousness rhymes don't need to be fully digested to be appreciated. Phrases bubble up from the whirlpool of Rock's voice, and in the time it takes to analyze and appreciate "I was sitting on my fire escape and I saw/sturdy bridges/decorated with dirty pigeons/a vagabond beggin' for three pennies and a princess" you've missed "a junky tourniquet surgeon urgin' the needle in/a batty senior citizen flashin' that awful teethless grin" and so on until you're pretty much drowning in words.
Though it's easy to appreciate Rock's skill, keeping your head above water can be exhausting, especially with an overstuffed 70-minute running time. That in itself might not be so bad if it weren't for the limp production, which is minimal so as not to detract from the all-important lyrics but which ultimately reduces the beat to a metronome for Rock to rhyme over. His guest spot on El-P's Fantastic Damage proved that Aesop Rock is, when paired with a great producer, a force to be reckoned with. A little trimming and a lot more attention to the beats could have transformed this intriguing curio into a truly classic record.