Let’s get this out of the way, Malibu Ken’s artwork is not pleasing to the eye. It’s repulsive, visceral, warped – and yet, the grotesque portrait possesses an odd magnetism. With this adage, on their debut release, Aesop Rock and Tobacco prove that even when the finer details aren’t so fine, ugliness can be strangely alluring.
A veteran of the independent hip-hop scene, Aesop Rock is essentially a shibboleth for weird, esoteric rap. In hip-hop circles, the Long Island emcee is deservedly recognised as a master craftsman, boasting an impressive back catalogue and an unshakeable respect among his peers.
Tobacco is a member of electronic music group, Black Moth Super Moth Rainbow, known for curating bizarre instrumental soundscapes. Often dark and disturbing, Tobacco’s creations regularly straddle the line between what the fuck? and what the absolute fuck?, all the while retaining inventive, ingenious sensibilities.
Aesop Rock and Tobacco prove that even when the finer details aren’t so fine, ugliness can be strangely alluring
Having been tour partners and occasional collaborators just over a decade ago, the two finally join forces on Malibu Ken, doubling down on their glorious weirdness and sparking a tantalising intrigue in the process.
From the get go, anti-social themes are abound and on ’Corn Maze’, Aesop backflips and somersaults between harrowingly self-deprecating and bleakly hilarious lyricism. At this point, gallows humour is nothing new for Aesop Rock, but Tobacco gives Aes fresh paint for an old canvas.
As Aesop depicts his decaying lair on ‘Tuesday’, the beat, gradually blooming, takes centre stage as the jaggy instrumental intersperses with Tobacco’s layered, distorted vocals over frenetic tones. Matching the subject matter, the roughness is firmly left around the edges.
‘Save Our Ship’ radiates a psychedelic vibe, with Tobacco birthing intricately kaleidoscopic synth sounds before segueing into a kingly melody on ‘Sword Box’, and immediately unfurling images of royalty and ramparts. Even this early on Malibu Ken, it’s easy to see Tobacco modifying the Aesop Rock Rubik’s Cube, adding trippy colours and greater complexity.
After two decades in rap, Aesop’s artistic particularities are well-established and then some, but he deserves praise for his freakish ability to continually weave stories with an urgency that pulls on your lapel. ‘Acid King’, a tale so elaborate that it deserves an entirely separate dissection, is told with ice-cold precision and a macabre virtuosity. Aesop turns over the other side of the coin on ‘Churro’, a blunt, darkly hilarious account of nature’s unrelenting, unapologetic violence squared off against humanity’s love of furry critters.
Even this early on Malibu Ken, it’s easy to see Tobacco modifying the Aesop Rock Rubik’s Cube, adding trippy colours and greater complexity
Lyrically, Aesop Rock is virtually without equal, and on ‘Dog Years’, he is masterful with the wordplay – Olympic athlete masterful. AR spits: “Aes count cake in dog years/ I’m rich when I’m broke/ It’s amazing/“, nodding playfully to profiting from his own dysfunction among other entendres. Tobacco pairs this against a disarmingly lo-fi sound and a twinkling outro reminiscent of something from a Game Boy title in the very early 2000s.
So it continues on ‘Suicide Big Gulp’, balancing cutting rhymes and caustic humour: “Aes ain’t here, man/ Aes, I can tell it’s you/ Tell it’s me from over there, this ain’t a fucking petting zoo/“ – a reminder that Aesop Rock likes to frame amusing pictures with barbed wire.
At times, the former Def Jux lynchpin constructs verses like a deranged architect, displaying a syllabic placement that conjures visions of sprawling blueprints and dense equations. But it isn’t necessarily always complicated. Accurate, deliberate simplicity is a key ingredient in this album’s soup, with Aes skilfully teasing entire novels from his rhyme splinters (“The kid Tobacco is a face in the fire on the fucking mountain/).
‘1+1=13’ is a sardonic send-up of misfortune, a verbal conveyor belt of bad luck imagery. More still, Aesop brilliantly chains combinations of pleasing sounds: “When you wish upon a barnstar/ Save us from nyuck-nyuck and har-de-har-har/“. Aes’ verses are often coded and cloaked in metaphor, and if you’re not braced for a barrage of cryptic imagery, fatigue may quickly set in. Tobacco’s layered vocals (pitch perfect on ‘Tuesday’) show up across the latter end of Malibu Ken with mixed results. On a tight 34-minute album, it feels like Tobacco visits this well a little too often, however, when it pays off, the technique expertly brings out the devilish, cartoony elements of Malibu Ken.
So it continues on ‘Suicide Big Gulp’, balancing cutting rhymes and caustic humour: “Aes ain’t here, man/ Aes, I can tell it’s you/ Tell it’s me from over there, this ain’t a fucking petting zoo/“ – a reminder that Aesop Rock likes to frame amusing pictures with barbed wire
The album rounds off with the weighty, mournful parting shot, ‘Purple Moss’. Tobacco sets the scene, fleshing out ambient, dream-like tones that evoke a sincere sense of wistful longing. Recounting misgivings and memories, Aesop’s sorrow is laid bare, but unlike previous material detailing his inner turmoil, ‘Purple Moss’ encapsulates a grim clarity. It’s searching for something deeper, as if Aesop is resigned to never finding peace in a life defined by distance and estrangement. It’s an honest appraisal of the rapper’s sadness, underpinned by a piercing self-awareness.
More than anything else on this 10-track LP, ‘Purple Moss’ enshrines Malibu Ken’s compelling ugliness, as Aes sketches himself as trapped in a barely human, catatonic stupor: “These cold, bad hands are attached to a breathing meat/“, while bearing an acceptance of living death: “Never mistook for a bird or a plane/ Mistook for a hearse in the rain/“. Tobacco complements this sombre outpouring beautifully, pulling his distorted vocals apart like plasticine and delivering a sense of slow-motion tragedy.
Akin to sunken treasure, some of Aesop Rock’s hidden gems may never be discovered, however, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. With help from Tobacco on Malibu Ken, the wit and wisdom is typically submerged but still worth searching for – even if you run the risk of drowning along the way.
Album Rating: Highly Recommended
Poor: 0-2 Stars / Favourable: 2-4 Stars / Highly Recommended: 4-5 Stars
Malibu Ken is available now on Rhymesayers Entertainment