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During the making of None Shall Pass — Aesop Rock's gentler, narrative-heavy new CD on Definitive Jux — the hip-hop MC moved from his beloved New York to San Francisco, got married, and turned 30. "So those were the three punches in the face I took," he says with a chuckle during a recent phone interview.
Rock flung himself across the country to be with his wife, Allyson Baker, guitarist for Bay Area band Parchman Farm. "It was kind of a blessing in disguise," he says. "I probably needed to get out of New York and didn't really realize it until I got out. When you're from New York, you feel like you're not allowed to live anywhere else."
But it was a New York-centric, street-poet sound that informed his 2001 Labor Days, the disc that shot Rock to underground fame upon its release. The album showcased his dense, hyperarticulate lyricism; when listeners could penetrate Rock's meaning, they found him mixing cocky rhymes with vivid imagery. On the album's masterpiece, "Daylight," Rock rapped, "While the triple-sixers' lassos keep angels roped in the basement, I walk the block with a halo and a stick poking your patience." His sonic innovation and fan base continued to grow with 2003's Bazooka Tooth, as well as various EPs over the years.
None Shall Pass shows a lyrical leap forward for Rock, showcasing his storytelling abilities in the form of semiautobiographical tales. On "Catacomb Kids," he spits, "I was a dark, dumb student, no hokey rookie daytrippin' on visions of chickens that looked like R. Crumb drew 'em/ They grew 'em in the royal dirt of Suffolk County's flooring with the blood of an alcoholic clergyman in his forearms." On the album's most compelling songs — the title track, "Fumes," and "The Harbor Is Yours" — Rock's tales evoke fear, nostalgia, and the horrible ecstasy that is youth.
"I made the album less braggadocio and less masturbatory. There are less raps about being the best in the world, less songs about being a flawless human being, less battle-oriented stuff. Without sounding corny, it was more me kind of trying to be reflective, and picking songs in which I could tell a story or explain a time and setting," he says. "I tried to look over junior high school, grammar school, high school, and all the different eras that kind of added up to where I was at. They are reflections mixed with 'Where am I at now? What do people think of me? What do I think of other people? How do people judge the person that I am today?' Basically all the ingredients of what I've turned into."
Musically None Shall Pass is a mixed bag, blending gratifying, rollicking beats from longtime collaborator Blockhead with more experimental, often-grating tracks produced by Rock himself. The disc features more scratching and turntablism than his previous efforts, as well as more live instrumentation. Baker played guitar on a number of the album's tracks, Rock plays bass and guitar, and Definitive Jux label head El-P plays synthesizers. (He also helps out on production and vocals on a few tracks.) The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle is another standout guest, contributing slightly distorted vocals on the haunting sing-along "Coffee."
Some of this instrumentation was originally unintended. This summer, with the record already finished, Def Jux called with some unfortunate news. "The label said they were cracking down on us for samples more than ever before, and that we couldn't use five of the songs," Rock remembers. "I kind of had a nervous breakdown, because we were basically done with the record. I'd never been busted for a sample before, and all of the ones we'd used were pretty obscure. I was almost like, 'Fuck it — take it or leave it. I'll give it to someone else or I'll give it away for free.' It was that frustrating. But we went in with people who could play the instruments and basically reworked stuff.... I ended up thinking that most of them turned out."
Critics largely agreed, although Rock was panned in some reviews for continuing to bury his message beneath heaps of metaphors and half-formed ideas.
"The album is as solid as its maker's last name, but so predictable you could set your Flavor Flav clock to it," wrote Jason Richards in Toronto's Now Magazine. "It's like watching Evel Knievel jump his motorcycle over 10 school buses ... over and over again. Still incredible, but there's a point when you want to see him demonstrate those death-defying skills just a bit differently."
"I don't really care," Rock says with a nervously defiant laugh, when read the latter critique. "I've been hearing that exact criticism for the past 12 years or so. I've come to the conclusion that not everyone's going to understand what I'm saying. I don't make it with anyone in mind, other than kind of myself, anyway. If people really think I've been sitting here for the last 12 years making records that literally make no sense, I can promise you I've got better shit to do with my time."
Ironically, while critics were accusing him of being too obscure, some longtime fans accused him of pandering to the masses. Last year, to Internet grumbles, Rock made an unusual foray into corporate America by composing a 45-minute-long track for the Nike+iPod Sports Kit. (For those legions of indie rap enthusiasts, apparently.) Meanwhile, upon its August release, None Shall Pass sold 13,200 copies in its first week — more than any previous Rock album — and debuted at number 50 on the Billboard 200. In its third week, it got a bump when Rock was chosen as MTV's Artist of the Week. Indie-mentality fans peppered the comments section on Rock's MySpace page with quips such as "That sucks you had to sell out for MTV."
"I can't really pretend that I understand that," Rock responds. "It was funny, and somewhat to be expected, but it made zero sense. You think [MTV] paid me? Of course they didn't. [But] we're not going to turn down that much free promotion. I still have some old bills at home."
Whether it's stepping gently into the mainstream or moving across the country, a more apt phrase to describe Rock's behavior might be growing up. This applies to the future of his songwriting as well. "I want to try to do rap songs about things that have never even been discussed in the world of hip-hop," he says, mapping out plans for possible projects down the line. "I had this vision of songs that feel like they should be told around a campfire — ghost stories or tall tales kind of things."
There are subjects even scarier than turning 30 and getting married, it seems.