Aesop Rock is my favourite storytelling rapper of all time. Stones Throw Records is one of my favourite labels of all time (The Peanut Butter Wolf-run label has been home to J Dilla, Madlib [including Madvillain w/ MF DOOM], Knxwledge and more). Aesop Rock has teamed up with none other than Homeboy Sandman to release a brand new, five-track EP Lice. On Stones Throw. It’s Aesop’s first release since 2014’s mixtape The Blob, while Homeboy also released the White Sands EP and a full-length, Hallways, last year.
Allow me to unveil my obsessive fangirl-ness here for a moment.
A prolific and chameleonic artist since the mid-’90s, much of Aesop’s best work over the past five years or so has come from his collaborative efforts and features. Instead of changing his own style from release to release, he tends to work with a wide variety of musically diverse collaborators – and to that effect, it really works, because it gives us the Aesop density and intensity, but with fresh beats and new sounds. Take the drawn-out ominousness of Hail Mary Mallon for instance, or The Uncluded, which may be the first and only folk-hip-hop blend in existence, and in my opinion is the closest I’ve ever heard to a non-Australian writing Australian hip-hop.
Aesop has now teamed up with Homeboy Sandman to drop one of his best releases in years. Featuring impeccable and diverse production from DJ Spinna, Optiks, Blockhead and Alex “Apex” Gale, this a unique, extremely impressive release. The combination of the two rappers is so interesting as they’re so different. Aesop usually flies way under the underground radar, commonly working with Rhymesayers and Def Jux artists. Being part of the Stones Throw fam, Homeboy’s flow is totally different, more subtle but no less powerful.
From the very first track, Lice is something different. “Head lice in the classroom?” the opening sample on Vertigo threatens, immediately followed by a spitfire intro verse about a paranoid voyeur. Aesop’s dramatic, light-speed spats are contrasted so interestingly against Homeboy, who, despite being from Brooklyn has a more understated, almost Andre 3000-level inflection-less flow. And I’ll be, is that a goddamn Jay-Z reference (“What more can I say?”)? Katz is frantic, with a huge beat and an almost Middle Eastern-sounding instrumental loop. Aesop is playing with really unusual rhythms here, and combined with Homeboy, it not only feels different on a musical level, but the entire atmosphere is something new.
Centrepiece Environmental Studies is even more varied; it’s slow, almost trap-before-the-drop slow. The production on this one really struck me, a true combination of both artists’ styles. That simple-yet-pristinely-deep rhythm is certainly a Homeboy infusion, but that plucked cello bassline is a frequent Aesop player, including on some of his biggest songs like No Regrets.
I LOVE this chorus: “Speakers of an unknown dialect, each breath comes with its own environment, you lack the minerals and vitamins, treat hacks like flies to the spider web.”
So Strange Here is a beautiful track that opens on a kind of psychedelic gospel sample, and a – dare-I-say-it – uplifting beat. The most intimate and honest track on the EP, both artists begin their verses with “My dude,” indicating that they’re talking to a friend, and both end on the sentimental and reflective line, “It feels so strange, now it seems so strange to be here.” Homeboy puts his all into his opening verse; there’s passion beyond the flow, it’s emotive and genuine.
Both artists reveal so much about themselves on this track; it truly feels like the layers have been pulled back. “I’m scared to share my thoughts, people get mad at me for changing my mind, if now I’m in the game why’s it so hard to find a teammate?” asks Homeboy. Aesop echoes the sentiment, admitting, “On a tour of the wild frontier, lying awake, I tell myself it’s all to broaden my societal take, And while I sorta still believe it, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’d like to curl up on Long Island and die.” Ever the storyteller, it’s not often that we hear his story.
Final track Get A Dog simply blew me away – even after I realised that the instrumental is a sample from Linkin Park‘s One Step Closer. I’m not sure why rappers love LP so much, but I’m not going to lie: it’s an immaculate backing to this kind of rap. The distortion toys with volume and rhythm, while each artist shows off their aggression in their own ways; Aesop literally spits out his words, while Homeboy opts for more of a ‘silent killer’ vibe – quiet, understated, and teaming with venom.
A diverse and brilliant five-track offering, it’s not even 20 minutes long, but my goodness is it impressive. The most remarkable thing about Lice is its listenability. The biggest struggle I face when introducing friends to Aesop Rock is the fact that you can’t just kinda listen to it. It’s not music to play in the background. It’s 100% about the lyrics and the story. And although that often means that the instrumentation is really boring, it doesn’t even matter, as it’s a story more than it is a song. It’s music for headphones, for not speaking over, for listening to deeply – often with genius.com lyrics open in front of you. But the combination of Aesop, Homeboy and tremendous instrumentation and sampling (a CLEAR Stones Throw influence) throws this into another level altogether.
Stream below, or download the EP for free right here, courtesy of Stones Throw.