ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE 405 (NOW DEFUNCT)
For the better part of the 21st century, Ian Matthias Bavitz, best known by his stage name Aesop Rock, has galvanized an image that found success within the fringes of hip-hop and the forefront of “conscious rap.” Possessing unmatched sophistication, playful verbosity and an acerbic flow that cuts through the sub-conscious like butter, no emcee can wield the English language to their will quite like Aes.
Then there is TOBACCO, the audio-visual mastermind behind neo-psych luminaries Black Moth Super Rainbow, whose sage-like presence as a producer lends a magical flair to whatever he touches. Together, TOBACCO and Aesop, as Malibu Ken, nosedive into an uncanny exploration through drug-induced paranoia, folklore and the pervasive mundanity of humanity.
This pairing did not pop out of the blue. In fact, the origins Malibu Ken go back a decade when the TOBACCO and Aes toured together. 10 years later, they find themselves neck-deep in a marriage that shouldn’t work on paper, but surprisingly it has. With TOBACCO’s iconically colorful hues of synth as the foundation, Aes’ rasp and grimy demeanor operate as the perfect foil to the eccentric producer’s often celestial style. The result is a record quite unnerving and even extraterrestrial.
’Acid King’, the first single released from the duo, is an infectiously dark number. I would usually call a track of this nature an earworm, but there’s just something deformed and unkempt about ‘Acid King’. It burrows into your ear canal like a maggot ready to lay eggs rather than a worm trying to wiggle its way free. As distorted synth-bass percolates beneath, Aes takes us into a dark time during his childhood—1984 in New York, where the folklore surrounding Ricky Kasso—the Acid King—prevailed. Aesop expressed intrigue with Kasso and this peculiar small-town murder in the past with the track ‘Catacomb Kids’ off his 2007 album None Shall Pass, and with ‘Acid King’, the story of Kasso comes full circle with repulsive imagery and detail made possible by the only person qualified to tell this dark tale. Though the premise may sound like a perverse fascination, it holds deeper significance because of proximity to Aesop’s life.
One of the most dizzying cuts from this project, ‘Corn Maze’, is an anxious banger for antisocialites everywhere. Mixing in cutting wordplay like “In a lavish rabbit hole with no rabbits/ Young, dumb dust-bunnies jump into traffic,” and sincere reflection; “the voices in my head still talk tough/ I go to bed stoned, I got some walls up.” Aesop dismantles the “new blood” of hip-hop while battling his own distressed psyche. As complex Aesop’s raps are, ‘Corn Maze’ is a baffling example of experimental hip-hop where sound perfectly mirrors the production. Beneath the rapper’s agile banter, TOBACCO constructs exactly what the track title suggests— a maze of searing synths driving in and out of misleading pathways and explosive dead ends.
‘Acid King’ and ‘Corn Maze’ are two incredible pieces of experimental rap, but they‘re arguably the album’s highest highs. Because they were released as singles, the rest of Malibu Ken may leave listeners slightly underwhelmed by a seemingly homogenized concoction of TOBACCO’s synthesized compositions and Aes’ unrelenting flow through the first go-round. Needless to say, closer listening reveals some of Aes’ most cleverly nuanced lyrics and TOBACCO’s most textured soundscapes yet.
The entirety of Malibu Ken is defined by a comically dark and foreboding atmosphere. Beginning with the wonderfully grotesque account of Ricky Kasso in ‘Acid Rap’, the duo’s madness seeps across and into each remaining track. With ‘Tuesday’, Aesop spews about the grotesque monotony and laziness of humanity, likening himself and his mental state to bodily decay: “I'm bunions and contusions, bumps, lumps and bruises/ Discoloring, and other things I can't reach with a loofah/ Not a butcher, not a baker/ Pick a booger with a basic evolutionary failure.” Though not the most ravishing picture to imagine, the New York-born MC affirms such title by rendering personal self-loathing through sharp metaphors and a poetic flair.
This attitude reverberates louder as you move deeper into the album. With the track ‘1 + 1 = 13’, Aes’ despair magnifies as he ponders the perpetual “bad luck” that seems to plague his everyday life: “My lucky sevens only ever make it up to six/ Every three tries, Satan kind of wins.”
Though most of, if not all of Aes’ raps are left in the abstract, sifting through his heady references, childhood flashbacks and his current mental state will reveal an artist who is surprisingly relatable. Piercing through discombobulating wordplay, Aesop’s lyrics are as clear as day and often reads like a personal essay in the vein of Mark Kozelek—except Aes keeps his meander-ish introspection interesting via broader topics of discussion and interesting production.
TOBACCO’s work as producer proves to be the high-octane fuel needed to light Aesop’s fire. As he’s managed to do so well for more than a decade as the key figurehead of Black Moth Super Rainbow, TOBACCO pervades each track with a retrofuturist touch—a lo-fi sound compromised of analog synths and other pre-digital instruments. The result is an influx of psychedelic mania that ends up enhancing his counterpart’s festering lyrical voyages.
Random references and non-sensical metaphors aside, Malibu Ken is proof that abstract hip-hop is very much alive. While cloud rap and trap beats continue to grab headlines and garner streams, the potential of experimental rap may lie within the marriage between two aging and well-established artists. Through a mutual vision soaked in a bath of radioactive sludge—together—Aesop Rock and TOBACCO are the unearthly duo, Malibu Ken.
THE 405 RATING: 7/10