Sometimes, when I want to really bum myself out, I go to Billboard's website, check out the R&B/Hip-Hop chart and listen to every one of those songs. It's an easy, efficient way to deal with my recurring crisis of faith — and usually by the fourth Rick Ross guest spot, I've slammed my head against my desk enough to forget about the whole experience. Not that I'm against people who can't rap having success on the rap charts — it happens — but shit, things have reached an all-time low. When half of the "rhymes" written are all punctuated with the exact same phrase, and the other half make "It's All About the Benjamins" sound like The Communist Manifesto — you've got a condo 'round your neck? For real? — it's tough not to think that the art form has reached rock bottom. Factor in the 8 bajillion sucka MCs trying to do the same thing — and the fact that all the beats sound like half-wit Euro-pop — and it's easy to just say, "Forget it, I'm listening to nothing but free jazz for the rest of my life!"
But all is not lost. The underground is alive and well. OK, "well" might be a bit of a stretch — the aforementioned 8 bajillion sucka MCs are still like hardened cholesterol lining the arteries of the genre — but the underground is showing signs of renewed vitality. Case in point: Aesop Rock, one of the underground's shining beacons of hope during the Top 40 shiny-suit era of hip-hop in the late '90s/early Aughts, is back after an extended hiatus. July's Skelethon is Aesop's strongest record in ages and one of the most musically adventurous and lyrically challenging hip-hop records of the decade. It's the sort of record that makes no concessions to the market, gives a great big middle finger to the fashion world and a hearty "fuck you" to all the pop-rap writers that the short bus has dropped off at commercial radio.
"Might just reset this whole shit!" declares Aesop on "Racing Stripes." I'm prone to believe him as he raps a rather complicated and obtuse metaphor about $5 haircuts and rap commercialism over a freakified Afrobeat shuffle. As with each track on Skelethon, Rock takes that bar for hip-hop excellence and puts it back where it's supposed to be: way up high. He uses more words in 16 bars than the average MC puts on an entire mixtape, and uses more dynamics and textures in one song than your average producer puts out in an entire year. He abandons the rap-song-as-product-placement-delivery-device structure that has overwhelmed the genre, in favor of telling stories with depth, using metaphors with multiple meanings and generally trying to challenge the listener instead of, you know, telling us where to shop for things we'll never be able afford. He crafts characters that aren't caricatures, aren't cardboard cutouts of 1-Percenter ultra-consumers but — for all of the weirdness that might be used to describe them — are your neighbors, friends and enemies.
While it's not bound to make the pop charts or derail the conspicuous consumption that has strangled the ever-living shit out of hip-hop's creativity, Skelethon makes the bold declaration that hip-hop can be more than drug-fueled hedonism and designer clothes — a lesson that even the underground seems to have forgotten. Tracks like the gnarled electro-and-cello lead single "Zero Dark Thirty" or the organic goth-funk "Grace" call bullshit on the whole hip-hop game, which from what I can tell, has been officiated by NFL replacement refs for the past decade or so. When guest MC Rob Sonic spits, "Your buzz is organic as Monsanto" on the brain-drilling bonus track "BMX," it gets straight to the heart problem: The vast majority of the current crop of "underground" MCs is fake as shit. They're pretending-we're-not-a-major-label publicity machines are diluting and distorting the very concept of underground music to get a toehold in the pop world. Skelethon isn't afraid to call a turd a turd — and that's the ultimate cure for Billboard-induced hip-hop depression.