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Malibu Ken - Malibu Ken Music Album Reviews

Teaming with the playful producer Tobacco, Aesop Rock has a joyous playdate with his overlooked senses of humor and storytelling.

Aesop Rock has always been funny, though listeners could be forgiven for not noticing. Anybody who raps this often about cats doesn’t lack for self-awareness. But between the claustrophobic production, the miserablist worldview, his imposing delivery, and the sheer density of his wordplay, his music scans as dead-serious even when it drips with pitch-black humor. He’s funny, sure, but he’s a lot of other things first.

If he just needed the right producer to highlight that wit, he’s found a choice one in Tobacco, of the Pittsburgh synth-psych outfit Black Moth Super Rainbow. Aesop Rock and that band toured together over a decade ago, and Aesop guested on the producer’s nutty “Dirt” in 2008. Now they’ve released a full-length together as Malibu Ken, a madcap project that unmoors Aesop from expectations of high-mindedness. Tobacco previously produced the bass-addled “Silicon Valley” theme song, and, like that jingle, his Malibu Ken tracks radiate demented whimsy. For all its erratic shifts and kinks, his miswired electro-funk is purely pleasurable, a rarity in Aesop’s catalog.

Fueled by Tobacco’s sugar-jolt beats, Aesop lets the zingers fly. On “Tuesday,” he goes full stand-up, detailing his unkempt lifestyle and sad apartment: “I can’t even keep a cactus alive when I’m present/When I’m gone, it’s a groundbreaking botanical epic/From desolate to Little Shop of Horrors in a second/It’s weird knowing life thrives more when you exit.” Even more vivid is his description of his own skin and flesh, which he paints in the grotesque detail of a “Ren & Stimpy” still: “The pizza face is pepperoni, carbuncle, and caper/I’m bunions and contusions, bumps, lumps, and bruises/Discoloring and other things I can’t reach with the loofah.”

Elsewhere, Aesop writes about violent events with the prosaic specificity of Sun Kil Moon. On “Churro,” he recalls a webcam broadcast of an eagle snacking on a cat like the song’s sweet namesake. Despite his personal fondness for felines, he doubles down on the bleakness here. He imagines that some poor bastard cued up that very cam to cheer himself up after his cat ran away, only “to watch his little fluffy torn to pieces by the very nature he had sought to ease him through his deep depression.”

Similarly grim, “Acid King” is dense with 1980s details, from Mary Lou Retton to “Excitebike.” Aesop recounts the 1984 saga of Ricky Kasso, a 17-year-old metalhead who murdered his friend while high on LSD, claiming Satan appeared to him as a crow and made him do it. Tobacco matches him with the period-piece synths of a 1980s action show, as Aesop fixates on all the unknown details of the incident, which fueled a fervor over the dangers of heavy metal.

Even when his subjects are less clear, there’s still so much imagination and purpose in Aesop’s language that he sounds like he’s telling a story. The guy mints new “cellar doors” with nearly every verse, combinations of viscerally satisfying syllables that keep exact meaning out of reach. “Under the boardwalk, half eighth and a half-ate corn dog/Face halfway to P-40 Warhawk, graze in the gore with the whores and the warthogs,” he raps on “Dog Years,” as if setting the stage for a tale as fulfilling as “Acid King.” Instead, he unfurls a parade of ecstatic imagery.

With its 34-minute runtime, its cartoon cover art, and the pervading levity of Tobacco’s beats, Malibu Ken may seem at first like a minor work. But there’s nothing diminutive about a record this sharply written. It’s a side project every bit as substantial as Aesop Rock’s proper albums. That it also happens to be more fun than most of them is a bonus.

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