Wednesday, December 16, 2009

#18. 'This origami dream is beautiful, but man those wings will never leave the ground'

Aesop Rock "Daylight"

I remember that around the time that The Marshall Mathers LP was released there was a widely circulated quote - I want to credit it to Charles Barkley but I can't confirm that right now - along the lines of 'you know the world's changed when the best golfer is black and the best rapper is white.' I know he was talking about it in terms of popularity above all else, but even back then when I was a huge fan of Eminem's the phrasing of the quote struck me as shortsighted. Eminem was doubtlessly talented, and if he stays away from cheesy crap like "We Made You" he still is to some extent, but I never thought of him as being the alpha dog as far as my 15 year old view of 'skills' went. Certainly Busta Rhymes was faster (though he was arguably past his prime by then), Ludacris was just as distinct and nimble (though arguably he hadn't fully arrived yet) and countless others were more passionate in their delivery. Eminem had them all beat in terms of visibility, as anyone who courts controversy as relentlessly as he did would be, but he always seemed like a B-student acting out to get people on his side.

Of course the irony of it is that the quote proved pretty much correct, except it was the wrong white rapper that Barkley(?) was referring to. I wasn't aware of Aesop Rock's existence at that point, my knowledge of non-mainstrem hip hop went no further than MC Paul Barman (of all people) and a single Dose One track from a CMJ New Music Monthly compilation, but had I heard "Daylight" when it was released I can't help but think that my little 15 year old brain would have gone into overload by the time 'merit crutch stolen wretched refuse of my teeming resonance/I promise temperance towards breed with a leaning conscience/Here the creed acts since responsive but my sports supports the wattage' came around. Even now I do mental 'whoa' every few lines, something I rarely do for any other hip hop tracks. Put simply, Aesop Rock might be the best rapper out there, at least in my mind he is. He's nimble, intelligent and dense without sacrificing flow, a rare combination that few pwople can match. Even if his voice is a bit of an acquired taste - OK, a lot of one - there's no denying the sheer level of skill behind his work.

And then there's his lyrics. I don't get into the whole lyrical analysis thing all that often, but sometimes a song just begs to be understood beyond being a series of words and images that sound good when put into place. If "Daylight" isn't one of those songs then I don't know what is, honestly. Throughout the verses Aesop throws out a lot of potent images detailing all manner of modern evils that keep the good at bay, how the American dream has been corrupted into a twisted facsimile of what it started out as and the various ways that modern life keeps pushing it further away, then in the chorus he expresses his regret at how little he can do to change things. I won't try to claim that that interpretation is gospel, but that's the gist I get from what could well be a stream of consciousness assemblage of words that sound particularly great together. And boy do they sound great. Even without a larger meaning behind them there are so many particularly noteworthy lines scattered throughout the song that don't need to fit into a larger framework to hit hard. To name a few...
  • 'And I'm sleeping now/wow/yeah the settlers laugh/you wont be laughing when your covered wagons crash/you wont be laughing when the buzzards drag your brother's flags to rags/you wont be laughing with the front lawn's spangled with epitaphs (wont be laughing)'
  • 'Shimmy across the centerfold enter dead time engulfed/divvy crumbs for the better souls/with seven deadly stains adhere the blame to crystal conscience/the results a low life counting on one had what he's accomplished'
  • 'Life's not a bitch, life is a beautiful woman/you only call her a bitch 'cause she wouldn't let you get that pussy/maybe she didn't feel ya'll shared any similar interests/or maybe you're just an asshole who couldn't sweet talk the princess'
  • 'Metal captain, this cat is askin if I seen his little lost passion/told him, "yeah" but only as I pedaled past him'
Then there's the chorus itself, probably the simplest part of the song yet the most indicative of its true nature. Two lines punctuating each verse of dystopian imagery that get to the heart of the complaints he's raising. 'All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day/put the pieces back together my way' Everything that's wrong could be fixed if the constituent parts were put into different contexts, and if he could find the best way to place these things it would work out better. It's idealism personified, there's good in the worst aspects of society if you put the pieces that led to it into a different light. Such a powerful idea, but as the sample afterward reminds us, you can't stop for too long to analyze that type of thing, you just have to keep going.

For once I don't have much to say about the production, Blockhead's reliably great but he wisely takes a backseat to Aesop here. I do love the bass line that it's all based on, and the horns that pop up halfway through each verse wind up providing emphasis on some of the best lyrics, but otherwise it's just a good beat over which Aesop can completely tear it up without much distraction. And I'm fine with that for once. If the production had been phoned in Imight have to take issue but it seems more purposefully understated than lazy. Hell, even if it were phoned in and the lyrics stayed the same I doubt I could rank it much lower.

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