It’s 11:21 p.m., CST, on Friday, July 27, and I am in a crowd of about 300 at Madison, Wisc.’s Barrymore Theater, watching Aesop Rock do “Zero Dark Thirty”. It turns out shouting “Down from a huntable surplus to one” back at a man dressed in a plain gray Hanes T-shirt and jeans feels pretty damn great. The song can be read as an epitaph to underground rap, as in there used to be a huge wave of rappers filling up albums with knotty rhyme patterns and songs without identifiable choruses, and now, it’s basically just down to Aesop Rock (which isn’t really true, but you get it).
But for a lot of us (and by “us” I am including me), he’s the ideal of underground rap, the guy that made you cool by association, the guy who made every decision in his career to be anti-commercial, and who, by liking his music, allowed you to take a stand against the bastardization of hip-hop by “commercial” rappers. Aesop Rock is an important artist in any listener’s musical exodus into the wormhole of rap music, in that he stands as the stock answer for when you’re trying to prove to someone that rap can be abstract, arty and at least partially unlistenable. Aes is something of a gateway drug too: If you can get down with the middle third of Bazooka Tooth, you are ready for anything any rapper throws at you.
What I am saying is that for a certain class of rap fan, Aesop Rock is a signifier of something larger than just a rapper saying a lot of seemingly disconnected things. I’m betting roughly 91.6 percent of Potholes readers had an “Aesop Phase,” a period of time—be it hours or years—where he was your be-all, end-all MC.
Which is to say I saw Aesop Rock live, and it turns out it’s not that dissimilar from listening to Aesop Rock really loud in a large room with a bunch of strangers who annoy you with their stupid light-up speakers T-shirts and the smell of their terrible weed.
But here’s where it gets hairy. I know you’re here for a review of what it was like to see Aesop Rock, so you can prepare yourself to sit through a significant part of Aesop’s oeuvre in your town. And that’s fine; I address your needs way down this piece. I understand that desire, and I sympathize with you. But I don’t think it’s even possible for me to be really objective when it comes to Aesop Rock.
Do I wish he spent more of his set doing deep cuts off None Shall Pass? Sure. But I spent most of my time at the Barrymore thinking about all the time in my life I’ve spent thinking about Aesop Rock. To nitpick setlists, or to talk about how I feel a live band set up would have been a better show, just seems too quaint. How do you review a show when you carry around a bunch of personal baggage, even positive, about an artist?
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