The past decade has seen Aesop Rock gracefully transform from the posterboy for New York’s underground hip-hop scene to that friend you’ve always envied who skipped the scene in his Subaru Outback and relocated to Portland. In contrast with the grimy, guest-heavy raps on 2007’s None Shall Pass, his last two records repurpose his cryptic, wordy verses for a more rural—and, consequently, less anxious—feel, even seeing Aes team up with outsider figureheads like Tobacco and Kimya Dawson.
With his latest project, Spirit World Field Guide, the rapper sets his sights even more inward than is typical for him, constructing a dense conceptual world he’s more than happy to guide us through. The album’s playful intro sets the record up as being a series of notes home from summer camp—though, you know, instead of a camp it’s an “unwavering otherness.” “I came up with this ‘Spirit World’ concept where it’s an alternate dimension that isn’t necessarily bad or good,” he explains. “It’s just elsewhere. You can voluntarily go, or you can find yourself there unwillingly. I guess it’s an attempt to name the mindset of someone who may feel disconnected and/or alone. You are not lost, you are in the Spirit World—which is what you make of it.”
Rather than a conventional album—or even a stacked mixtape—the goal for the record’s 21 tracks is to serve as a sort of audio map the listener could wander around. “I had originally set out to make a project of about forty to fifty songs,” he continues. “Everyone I told this to said it was a bad idea. Anyway, once I got to eighteen or nineteen, I think I realized my original goal was, in fact, a bad idea. The end product is still on the long side, but I don’t necessarily view it as something you need to listen to front to back in one sitting. In an actual field guide, you’d kinda flip around until you find the section that applies to your current situation. That’s how this feels to me.”
With the album out today, we asked Aesop to guide us through the Guide to offer a little backstory behind each song on the project.
1. “Hello From the Spirit World”
This was the last thing I recorded for this project. I think I was trying to write some sort of album announcement that we could use as a promotional asset. I ended up liking it more than I had anticipated, and a few people suggested I use it as an intro. It’s perhaps a bit wacky, but that’s how I roll.
2. “The Gates”
This is arriving at the gates of the Spirit World with a sense of wonder and excitement about what may be waiting on the other side. I feel like the actual gates would look like a Kilian Eng painting. My buddy Wes sent me the main organ riff, and I kinda worked everything up around it. After I made it I knew it would be first on the record, and probably the first single too. It just felt like a good starting point for all this.
3. “Button Masher”
This describes making a cardboard spaceship in your living room and blasting off. It celebrates escaping by using your imagination and “making stuff.” I like that the drums kinda chug along, and Hanni El Khatib’s guitar always sounds awesome. This was pretty fun to write actually—combining outer space references with some of that crafty, Joann Fabrics funk.
4. “Dog at the Door”
This is about when your dog is barking at something in the yard on a cold night, and you go out on the porch all paranoid trying to see what’s out there. It’s probably a squirrel, but it could also be a government agent or a ghost with some unfinished business on earth. This is probably my favorite song on here. I kept the demo vocal take for this, which is kinda rare for me. (I usually do a quick take after I finish the lyrics, then go back at the end to redo it “better.” It’s always worse.)
This talks of visiting the Spirit World as a sort of survivalist camping adventure in bad weather. It serves as a warning that it won’t always be peace and love on the other side. This was one of the first three or four songs I made for the project. I like the organ change at around 1:50.
6. “Pizza Alley”
A lot of this was written during a trip to Peru, and pieced together when I got home. I hadn’t written in awhile, and I was generally unsure of what was next for me. The trip sort of reinvigorated me, as I had never really traveled anywhere that wasn’t associated with playing a show. The early part of the song is (mostly) about the urban environments I experienced, while the latter half (after the beat change) talks about my time in the Amazon Jungle. I think this was the first song I made for the record.
7. “Crystal Sword”
This is meant to sound like a Spirit World journal page with notes and diagrams flooding the margins. Maybe a doodle of a strange flower. I had looped this bass line with no additional instruments, and was gonna attach it to an edit of a friend skateboarding. He saw it and was like, “Uh, you might wanna save that bass line for yourself.” I did.
8. “Boot Soup”
This is about how the people around you can affect your Spirit World experience. Sandman really enjoyed this one so I chopped up his voice in the middle. These drums are fun to rap on, and I remember being hyped on the vocal pattern in the chorus.
I had this bass line around for years and it just never made it out of the lab. One day I added that synth layer and it finally came together as something more. This one is about moving quietly and blending in. Being invisible isn’t always bad. Also it was called “Sticky Trap” until the week before it was turned in. Then one night I got all worried that I had too many two-word song titles, and I changed a few. My other crutch is song titles that end in “S”—like “Coveralls.”
10. “Jumping Coffin”
This talks about how if you feel an energy from the other side calling out to you, let it in. Don’t pretend you don’t feel it. This is another of my favorites on here. The beat is kinda jumpy, and I managed to almost make a catchy hook. Almost. Also this is another two-word title.
11. “Holy Waterfall”
This is about a trip I took to Cambodia(’s Spirit World). It’s fun writing about these trips because if anything, I come home with too many ideas—which is rare. I enjoy trying to squash a whole experience into three to four minutes. For me it feels like I’m flipping through photos, where every line or two is directly related to some experience I had. Also, it’s fun to repeat a vocal pattern through a whole jam. Cambodia is beautiful.
This is about fruit flies. I’ve been digging these super short songs, and plan to do more. Some stuff doesn’t need to be exhausted for two to three verses, but still deserves a song. The flies are gone now anyway. I got one of those UV light traps, and it really worked great.
This is a moody temper tantrum. It kinda reflects the frustration that accompanies feeling misunderstood by those around you, and why one might seek out the Spirit World for themselves. I like this beat a lot.
14. “Sleeper Car”
This is about some traveling I did in Thailand. Some of these overseas trips end up feeling like I’m searching for something but I’m not sure what. Maybe I just go so I can write the song after. I’m OK with that. I enjoy wandering around these places and seeing some shit I’d never see at home. The title refers to an overnight train trip I took from Lopburi to Chiang Mai. This is also the only song credited as a co-production. Hanni and Leon Michels sent me the framework for this beat, and I added some further layers and arrangement.
15. “1 to 10”
This is another short one about my struggles with back pain. This loop had been sitting in a folder for years. I always thought, “I’ll use that someday, but I’m not sure how.” Well, here it is.
This is a song for when your Spirit World camp site gets raided in the middle of the night by some unfriendly force out to expel you. Mostly just some aggro journal stuff. What is a “hook” anyway?
This is about the lonely side of the Spirit World, and knowing you’re only there because you don’t belong anywhere else. I feel like I’m there when I pursue my creative interests, and have largely enjoyed taking advantage of that kind of isolation. But it can surely be a path toward spending too much time alone, working in a room by yourself. What a dream. What a nightmare. I like [DJ] Zone’s cuts on here. Also could work for virtual clubbing, or a viral dance craze.
18. “Fixed and Dilated”
This song is about pure evil, demonic possession, and feeling like your flesh might just be a vehicle for dark forces. It’s like the final level of self-loathing. This was one of the last few that made it to the project. It had a couple other beats before this version.
19. “Side Quest”
A short piece about skateboarding at night. Pure Spirit World. I like writing about night—driving, walking, skating, etc. This one has a weird time signature, which always sounds like a cool idea until you actually start writing it. Rappers’ brains cannot process anything beyond 4/4—mine included. Anyway, I like how it came out. The gaps in the flow were way harder to nail than I care to admit.
20. “Marble Cake”
This is about how the hunt is the prize. Explore all dimensions, and know that the value is in the experience, not what you have in the end. The chorus is meant to celebrate life by saying, “How I die is not important. How I live is.” I think when you are a person who finds value in making art—on your good days you recognize how much of a privilege it is to explore and learn and create and share. This was almost the last song until a late decision where I flipped this and the next one.
21. “The Four Winds”
This is about moving forward always. It’s less of a finale track, and more of a call to keep going. For me it feels like “Marble Cake” kinda is the finale track. This is like an epilogue just to remind you to get your hands dirty, try to do some cool shit, and keep it moving. I kinda liked the idea of ending on an ellipses instead of an exclamation point.