Integrated Tech Solutions
10 November 2023
For over 25 years, Aesop Rock has carved out his own lane in hip-hop. His breakthrough Labor Days is nearing its 25th anniversary, but the themes of working to live instead of living to work are as relevant as they were then. At this point, he’s cultivated a devoted following far outside the mainstream. Mention him as a GOAT emcee, and the “purists” will likely dismiss you or think you mean A$AP Rocky, but no one is better at manipulating language, and few can rival his storytelling. Ten years ago, he was ranked as having the most sophisticated vocabulary in hip-hop, and this verbosity has captivated fans and aggravated detractors. To dismiss his work as esoteric or nonsense is a mistake. It is dense, but it is riveting storytelling and far from incomprehensible. Aesop Rock’s are some of hip hop’s most carefully constructed rhymes.
His ninth solo album, Integrated Tech Solutions, begins with a cheesy, 1980s-sounding commercial for a fake company of the same name. Rhymesayers have a full line of office gear emblazoned with the ITS logo, from a pen and pocket protector set to a brain-shaped stress squeeze to a lab coat. “Mindful Solutionism” announces this will not be a radical departure from the Aesop Rock playbook featuring dense rhymes over a synth-heavy beat and scratching. It is a satirical look at technology’s benefits that grows increasingly dark as it goes on. The technology theme is discarded quicker than you can say, “The Who Sell Out”, and Aesop Rock gets down to what he does best–dense rhymes and story songs that require full attention.
Aesop Rock is always selective about collaborators, but when guests show up, they usually add value and are expected to mesh with his sound. “Living Curfew” features billy woods, and his final verse brings the song to an explosive conclusion. Elsewhere, highlight “Kryptonite Toothpick” features Hanni El Khatib and the most memorable chorus on the record. His wordplay, bouncing between references to bands and record labels to video games to establish his bona fides to a newbie (“I was on that Juice Crew / I was on that “Who’s house?”) is one of the moments that produces the strongest nod and ear-to-ear grin.
Another highlight is “100 Feet Tall”, a story song about meeting Mr. T in the 1980s. The inventive way he weaves details about Mr. T from his roles on The A-Team and Rocky III while describing the event through his child gaze. The chorus is a highlight reel of catchphrases, “No fools no suckers / Be good to your mother / No dummies, no punks / I pity every last one,” and the final verse pays tribute to the rest of his life, including his appearances in pro wrestling and beating cancer, before thanking him for his cereal. It’s the sort of track tailor-made for his primarily Gen X fan base, but it’s also an inventive look at how children view their idols.
In “Aggressive Steven”, Aesop Rock recounts the story of a mentally ill homeless man who broke into his home. What begins as a mildly amusing tale unravels quickly when he learns Steven’s backstory of his inability to find services that will help him and that his future is either a felony charge or more of the same. Every city has Stevens, people who have a combination of mental health and addiction issues that make it impossible to improve their quality of life. “Bermuda” features Lealani on a chorus that recalls Beth Gibbons’ fiercest moments in Portishead.
The next track, “On Failure”, takes a lighter tone for a couple of minutes, as Aesop Rock revisits a Vincent Van Gogh painting and mentions that while Van Gogh is considered a master now, he was poor and considered mentally ill for his entire life, producing much of what is revered over nine years. Is this a comment on the tale of Steven (or the Stevens, who have also been artists) or even himself? It ends with a tongue-in-cheek line about liking one particular painting and lamenting that he was summed up as a “mentally ill failure” in his lifetime.
As he did on 2020’s Spirit World Field Guide, Aesop Rock saves two of the strongest tracks for last. “Vititus” is a poignant ode to his grandmother and his aging, while “Black Snow” splits into a stuttering beat in its second half. He lets loose a torrent of mesmerizing lines that build to “Thank you / Y’all have a good night / See you in the morn, the forecast ain’t right,” then ITS returns for a last-minute cameo.
Aesop Rock has always excelled at vivid character sketches and using his music to work through the most challenging parts of life. Those who do not engage with his work because it takes time to unpack are missing out. It’s unlikely this will be a breakthrough to a larger audience, but to the faithful, this is the latest chapter in one of the most consistently rewarding careers in hip-hop.