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Aesop Rock, Spirit World Field Guide: The Best Rap Album of 2020

As we approach the time of year when list article ideas begin percolating with the hot chocolate, it is becoming clear that despite the turmoil that 2020 delivered throughout public life, and many other branches of the arts shutting down or restructuring, the musical landscape has continued to deliver on some phenomenal releases. From the noisy extravagance of Black Dresses’ magnificent Peaceful as Hell and Poppy’s I Disagree, to the stunning pop stylings of Rina Sawayama and Carly Rae Jepsen on Sawayama and Dedicated Side B, there’s been no shortage of musical standouts. Rap music alone has provided so many stellar albums from Polo G, Clipping, Open Mike Eagle, Blu & Exile, Logic and Griselda projects which could fill a top ten by themselves.

However, despite the plenitude of phenomenal musical releases this year, my own picks for the absolute best have remained unchanged since early June, with early year releases Future Nostalgia, Brave Faces Everyone, and RTJ4 securing their spots as the clear standouts in pop, rock and rap records of the year. However, although Spanish Love Songs and Dua Lipa’s releases have remained unchallenged into November, Run the Jewels’ placement at last has a rival in the form of the new Aesop Rock album, Spirit World Field Guide.

It’s been some time since we’ve heard from the eccentric producer poet, with his last LP, The Impossible Kid one of the best albums of 2016. However, after teasing with a couple of singles, his new project released on November 13 and I’ve listened to little else since. As usual, the album is a virtual one-man show, produced almost entirely by Aesop himself and bearing no features. As with The Impossible Kid, the album is a fragmentary exploration of ideas, often to do with his fractured mental state. Each track is more a meditation on a theme, sometimes in the form of a story, told with a dry and detached sense of humour, but often a jazzier and more free-flowing succession of fantastically evocative imagery that juxtaposes the mundane and relatable against the esoteric and arcane.

However, as the title suggests, there’s a progression in that regard away from more earthbound imagery, with tracks about owning a therapy pet and visiting a psychiatrist replaced with references to druidic practices, astrology, or being fired off into space. The album is the soundtrack to a vision quest into Rock’s feelings of paranoia, social alienation and a transcendent experience of thought, and his incredible skill as a lyricist, constructing abstract gnomic expressions that often take far longer to absorb than they do to say, rewards the ambition of the imagery. Rock seems to have a typically ambivalent relationship to these practices of self-medication, often sounding dismissive of “woo-woo” new ageism, while baking his complex and inscrutable lyricism in allusions to it: “some try to combat any kind of odd force tryna make contact, nah. Let it in.” He often seems frustrated at his inability to escape his racing mind and overpowering neuroses, while seeing the humour in his own absurd situation: “how’d I get this far without a bindle full of crystal skulls?”

These fragmentary sketches of hectic ambience are somewhat tied together by the concept laid out on the opening track “Hello From The Spirit World”, establishing the album as a survival handbook for explorations of the unknown planes of existence in which he perceives himself. With imagery of transfiguration, psychedelia and concealed threats both imagined and actual, the album sounds the way a movie like Annihilation looks, perfectly living up to the surreal album cover: uncanny, horrifying and undeniably beautiful. Tracks like “Gauze”, “Pizza Alley”, “Holy Waterfall” and “Sleeper Car” concretise this allegory, describing his travels through strange climes in Peru or Thailand and his often frightening or transformative experiences.

Rather than a comment on the strange and unknowable world around us though, moments like this become very much a metaphor for his own mental state and identity, with this hostile and unpredictable terrain being his own subconscious mind or even just social spaces closer to home. There are occasional allusions to global issues as well, but always contextualised by their effect on him and his own reaction to it, comically describing himself giving out “free hugs in a plague mask” or warning “once you hassle the hoard, it doesn’t matter how much furniture you stack at the door.”

Spirit World Field Guide, has a similar electronic and heavily layered sound to the one found on The Impossible Kid, sometimes taking on more of a rock flair, as on the creaking electric guitars on the chorus to “Button Masher”, although the production here lacks even the singular flaw of that album; an occasionally stiff and sterile sound. Here the production is as raw, hallucinogenic and catchy as on that project’s best moments, with tracks like “Jumping Coffin” invoking the best beat work of Damon Albarn.

Although Aesop sounds even more out there than usual on Spirit World Field Guide, some more accessible moments on the album come in the form of the shorter tracks set in domestic spaces such as “Dog At the Door” and “Flies”. The former is a humorous and ironic portrait of his own paranoid mind, running through his thought processes upon hearing a suspicious noise outside: “it’s probably a cat. Might be a guy with an axe. Might be a trap. S—t, it’s probably a trap. Might be a possum in the trash, it’s probably a trap.” The latter though is a darker moment where he imagines himself overcome and consumed by the small black fruit flies that were overwhelming his kitchen.

The album also more than meets the requisite quota of pure charisma and skill demanded of a typical rap album, with tracks like “Crystal Sword” and “Coveralls” demonstrating Aesop’s undeniable teeth as an MC, pacing back and forth like a caged tiger or the monster in the woods. Even in these moments though, his alienation and outsider status are in evidence, although his resurging confidence allows him to briefly wear them as points of pride, and as sources of power when he wants to embrace his seclusion and frighten the normies: “you can send your fastest riders, I return the horses lonely.”

Across the 21 tracks of Spirit World Field Guide, Aesop Rock presents some of the most staggering displays of lyricism, seemingly totally free from generic tropes, trappings or traditions. It’s always a daunting process to digest what he offers, but thankfully it never becomes a wearing or frustrating process as he approaches his explorations of his often dark themes with such a rational attitude of good humour and a deeper dive into his content is never less than rewarding and satisfying. There’s material here to keep a listener happily occupied for days, but the personality and energy presented is an immediately satisfying kick. Rock remains one of the most uniquely talented and likeable artists around and his own strange world is as much of a pleasure to explore as ever.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where he graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent he was the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and runs a public blog on my Letterboxd account. Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed his current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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