With the Dilated Peoples releasing solo albums and Aesop Rock forming Hail Mary Mallon and collaborating with Kimya Dawson on the Uncluded, Skelethon is the first hip hop album I’ve highly anticipated in quite some time. Rock’s first solo effort since 2007’s None Shall Pass—with a title that would make the Alkaline Trio blush—certainly isn’t the best thing he has ever done, but it is a very solid effort that he can be proud of making.
Possibly more accurately a solo album than ever before, Skelethon’s beats are produced entirely by Rock this time through. On the other hand, Hail Mary Mallon members DJ Big Wiz and Rob Sonic are on the album and so is Kimya Dawson among others, including wife Allyson Baker. Still, this is unmistakably a new Aesop Rock album. Much like the beats he made for Felt 3: A Tribute to Rosie Perez and his lyrics, the music is a little weird. However, unlike Felt 3, Rock is more capable of rapping over his own beats than Slug and Murs.
Singles “ZZZ Top” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are both within the first four tracks. They, like the tracks bookending them and the song in between, are fairly standard Rock songs with wordplay and pop culture references that are nearly impossible to understand without sitting down with the lyrics. “ZZZ Top” seems like the more accessible of the two songs, with more catchiness compared to “Zero Dark Thirty,” which seems intent on barreling through to the end of the song without many tricks.
“Crows 1” begins with Dawson singing a short, haunting lullaby-esque song with lines like “little baby blue eyes, eyes turns black.” Unfortunately her vocals here simply aren’t strong enough for the song. It works slightly better when she repeats the line I quoted during the song itself, between Aesop Rock’s rapping and even another entire verse she performs later on in the song. “Crows 2” opens with Sonic saying “watch your step / watch your mouth / we all know the way that a punk goes out” and this aspect of the song also doesn't quite fit. Other than that, “Crows 1” and “Crows 2” are reasonably strong songs with “1” being the superior of the two songs. The lowlight of the album follows in “Racing Stripes,” a song about haircuts accompanied with vocals by Dawson as she plays a barber that says stuff like “mirror? You can’t look in the mirror. You look awesome!”
While much of the album could be categorized as an enjoyable enough new album from Aesop Rock—worth purchasing, but not necessarily something to write home about—there are a number of real treats throughout the album. The first comes from “Ruby ‘81,” a song that blows the storytelling of Labor Days’ “No Regrets” out of the water, though it does sacrifice the catchiness. The borderline cinematic music works perfectly to accompany the anxious mood as the listener, on the edge of their seat, listens to the unfolding story of Ruby falling into the swimming pool on July 4th, 1981.
Later on, “Homemade Mummy” teaches the listener how to make just that—though it apparently isn’t so simple since anyone that dares attempt to make one must “take the brain out / leave the heart in.” Though a few tracks later, "Tetra" contains the hilarious line "I wouldn't piss on your coffin / but when I see your picture I draw dicks on it", the best moment in the album comes at the very end during “Gopher Guts," where Rock delivers possibly the first verse he’s ever done that could be understood on its first listen without a booklet, including the lines “I have been unfairly resentful of those I wish had acted different when the bidding was essential / I have been a terrible communicator prone to isolation over sympathy for devils.” In the “Gopher Guts” installment of the YouTube series of videos Behind Skelethon, Rock notes that the song is about “me just kind of owning up to being a piece of shit”. A song by Rock about recognizing his own faults is the perfect album closer, especially in these times where rap is often caricatured as boastful music.
Rock raps from topics such as guesses as to why “a thousand season lions got up and left a pier they had successfully invaded and secured for 20 years” on “1,000 O’Clock” to saying a grace at dinner that, bluntly, is “dear god, thanks and if you loved me vegetables would be extinct” to the topic of death on “Crows 1” and “Crows 2.” The album has its faults, though none of it sounds like filler and I never feel the need to actually skip a track. However, the faults are more than made up for by the numerous highlights and the hours of fun one can have deciphering the meaning or references within the lyrics. It is kind of like The Lawrence Arms' The Greatest Story Ever Told without the footnotes.