Aesop Rock opens his tenth album with a parody of Silicon Valley corporatespeak. “ITS is a system of industry applications designed to curate a desired multi-experience,” he says over a pastiche of ’80s synthpop. “Using a unique hybrid of machine learning and on-site scrum sessions, our specialists have redefined tech-centric problem-solving. Disrupt. Innovate. Refine.” The technobabble pokes fun at both TED talkers and Aesop Rock’s reputation for verbosity. A Def Jux alum and Rhymesayers signee, he knows the taste of word salad. He also knows none will be served on Integrated Tech Solutions, a smorgasbord of stories, images, and textures. The record builds on Aesop Rock’s decade-plus of rehabbing his style, which has shifted from gnarled abstraction to bug-eyed omniology.
Aesop Rock still raps in lurching torrents of interlocking syllables and layered rhymes, but his delivery has grown more rhythmic and laid back, more conversational than combative. His production has come a long way, too; what was once functional scaffolding has become a pillar of his music. He’s now more interested in rap as expression than athletic feat, a turn that has made his songs more deliberate and searching. With this refined skill set and vision, he’s made subjects as trivial as skateboarding at night and as fantastical as a superpowered bullfrog feel engrossing and personal. That casual fluency drives Integrated Tech Solutions, an album loosely about life under technocracy. In a world where artists have been reduced to brands and data points, Aesop Rock asserts his multiplicity.
The record boasts some of his most fully realized songs. “Living Curfew,” a song about the magic of golden hour in a city, darts from a stoop to a Flatbush Avenue bodega to the bloodwork from Aes’ latest doctor visit, each detail rendered in 4K yet propelling the verse forward. The images accumulate like a Katamari ball, swelling into “Whirlwind country/A world flushed from the brush pen of Kim Jung Gi/Swirling, junkyard tires and loveseats and house pets/All swept up into one beast.” The trip-hop beat’s crawling bassline and looped moans heighten the flood of details; the song feels like wading into a mural. And that’s before billy woods sweeps in with an equally omniscient verse about witching hour, that other magical time of day.
Single “By the River” is just as exquisite. Rapping over a loop of soft percussion and a jazzy horn, Aes confesses his love of rivers. East, Hudson, Amazon, Willamette, Susquehanna—he admires them all, communing with a beaver and the ghost of his departed friend Camu Tao in a winding verse that’s broken up by the simple declaration, “I like rivers, I like rivers.” It’s the rare concept song that is as revelatory as it is intricate.
Aes does a lot of storytelling on this album, extolling the beauty of pigeons on “Pigeonemetry,” memorializing his late grandma on “Vititus,” and narrating a bizarre home invasion on “Aggressive Steven.” The latter gets unwieldy as the story drags on, but Aes’ rhythmic virtuosity shines in this narrative mode. He’ll often insert an exclamation or aside to imbue a line with color, or to transition into a different flow or rhyme scheme. “Mr. T is fucking real?” he spit-takes on “100 Feet Tall,” channeling the astonishment he felt when his family ran into the celebrity in the ’80s. On the Watchmen-referencing “Salt and Pepper Squid,” a monologue about mentoring younger skaters sidles into a conversation: “I like to help the younger rippers clip up/A little hype to reignite the nimbus when they hiccup/How’s your weekend?/Is it house on a beach with a view, and tea for two?” Elite technique is clearly second nature for him at this point, but he’s constantly in search of ways to rap his ass off without showboating.
The production is just as accomplished and purposeful. Outsourcing just one beat, he goes full mixmaster. On “Infinity Fill Goose Down,” chopped and scratched vocals, squiggles of funk guitar, and an arcade cabinet’s worth of synths fade in and out over nimble percussion. Pigeon coos undergird the ornithological paeans of “Pigeonometry;” porch-stomp drums thunder over reverbed electric guitar on “Bermuda”; a burping bassline loops over a crisp breakbeat on “All City Nerve Map.” He’s long been an omnivorous producer, but he’s recently learned to emphasize rhythm as much texture. (This applies to his verses too: His odes to junk food on “Time Moves Differently Here” straddle the bass notes like a lover, his slowed flow drawing out the pleasure of every delicacy.)
As on Spirit World Field Guide and The Impossible Kid, a fear of mortality lurks beneath the levity and wonder. In addition to his typical jokes about being a hermit and living fossil (“Aes from before the first Star Wars/I survived Action Park, I survived lawn darts),” he also ponders the legacy of his art. In an interlude, he considers the arc of Vincent van Gogh, who was considered a failure in his lifetime. Van Gogh is the patron saint of flop eras; people evoke the Dutch painter when they need validation during perceived downturns. But for Aes the prolific post-Impressionist is interesting because he was productive, period. Even if his art hadn’t survived, he still made it, a devotion that inspires Aes. Integrated Tech Solutions illustrates how that commitment continues to deepen even as Aesop Rock eyes the clock. “O death, o death, could ya please hold a moment?/I am so in effect,” he raps on closer “Black Snow.” He’s got more to say.
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