Brooklyn-based Aesop Rock (actually Ian Bavitz) comes from a throng of underground street impresarios, the kind of collective that creates albums on the fly while experimenting with new ideas on four tracks in people's apartments. His previous discs have seen him collaborate with his longtime friend Blockhead, one of the leading alterna-producers on the scene, but this time out Rock rocks the turntables and mixing boards solo, resulting in a schizophrenically focused album that has a lot to say and demands to be paid attention to.
He doesn't take this rap thing lightly, Aesop Rock. Unlike another white MC with the same last name, this Rock isn't trying to blow you out of your seat with overproduced tracks or drive down your throat just how real he is. And yet, like Kid Rock, Aesop is all about credibility; he simply seeks to prove it by example rather than through marathon repetitions of his own name. He soaks up media references and pop culture like a sponge, then spits them back at us machine-gun style. He recalls the sociopolitical concerns of 3rd Bass more than the egomania of Eminem, finding himself in step with the Anticon/MUSH crew (Alias, cLOUDDEAD, et al). And while he's at it, his beats do occasionally rock you out of your seat -- but that's not his only concern.
Aesop Rock's delivery is flat and somewhat nasal, like B-Real or Doseone. He doesn't flaunt his personality, doesn't rely on shouting or oddball vocal tricks to lure you in; he just states his case and expects you to listen. "I will not bow to a God that I can't look in the face" he explains on "Kill the Messenger", his voice unwinding around the old school beats laced with MIDI squoinks. He probably averages more syllables per verse than Ja Rule could fit into an A-side, equal parts pop nostalgia and seven-dollar words. "11:35" is a high-speed duo piece featuring fellow Def Juxer Mr. Lif, in which the two trade verses about everyday lives gone wrong due to the unfairness of the system and their subjects' personal flaws. Sometimes he has a message; sometimes he rattles off tongue-twisters just to prove he can. Rhymes don't always round up, words are occasionally sandwiched into sentences just to meet the requirements of the meter, and sometimes it all seems to break down and become gibberish, but damned if it isn't compelling just to see what'll come out of his mouth next.
The beats, which he does himself for the first time, are as complex as his lyrics and equally eclectic, meeting the stiff challenge presented by his idiosyncratic delivery. (This begs a question: when an MC produces his own album, what comes first, the lyrics or the beats?) "Cook It Up" is some funky goddamn shit that features a self-aware pseudo-soul chorus. "Frijoles" fits the current state of alt-hop identity crossovers, where postmodern aggro-rock meets anything-goes hip-hop -- the blood brother of an Outkast joint, only at half-speed. "Freeze" juxtaposes flutes, saxophones and giant bass lines, all in a Middle Eastern musical stew. It even flirts with a completely different song in its final minute, which Rock abandons, suggesting he has enough faith in the depth of his own creative well to toss this one back.
Bazooka Tooth not only gets better as the disc goes on -- the beats get thicker, the songs come together more fully and Rock stops proselytizing long enough to let your head bob and relax -- but it actually improves with repeated listens. Bavitz's many sides come out to play, sometimes jovial, sometimes indignant, sometimes at the top of his game and sometimes speaking in tongues. It's certainly not a disc for everyone, but it definitely rewards the curious. Mainstream radio may not be ready for Aesop Rock just yet, but he's doing just fine without them.