Album review: Aesop Rock and TOBACCO’s ‘Malibu Ken’

The dexterous MC and the Black Moth Super Rainbow ringleader join forces for an exhaustingly fun exploration of physical, mental, and social deterioration.
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Aesop Rock & TOBACCO's Malibu Ken
Rhymesayers Entertainment

Artist: Aesop Rock / TOBACCO

Album Title: Malibu Ken

Label: Rhymesayers

Release Date: Jan. 18, 2019

Aesop Rock has now spent two decades perfecting what’s rightly praised as one of the most singular voices in hip-hop. The Portland-by-way-of-Long Island MC, born Ian Matthew Bavitz, consistently serves up a delectable mix of wacky psychedelia and comic book geekery. His mind-eviscerating internal rhyme schemes, bested only by MF DOOM (and possibly pre-2004 Eminem, though Rock tends to be far less antagonistic), place him squarely in a class of his own.

So, naturally, he and Thomas “TOBACCO” Fec gravitated towards one another. Fec, the ringleader of Pittsburgh electro-psych weirdos Black Moth Super Rainbow, was a like-minded creative hipster in hot pursuit of an unflappably strange sound. The duo’s debut LP as Malibu Ken thrives on their mutual respect as both artists and humans.

Who is Malibu Ken?

Malibu Ken is a concept album for the end-times. As the disheveled, decrepit doll head on the cover suggests, it vividly explores the decay of the body, mind, and spirit–and by extension, that of the world around us. It all kicks off with the punchy “Corn Maze,” wherein Rock introduces the album’s conceit. Aesop has always been frank about his struggles with mental illness, and Ken is no exception; here, he discusses his antisocial tendencies and feelings of isolation and fear. Like so many of us, his life is a mess, and he finds himself forced to wear a mask that convinces the world he’s okay. “I wake up in a gallon of sweat,” he grumbles, “Puke blood, hit the shower, turn to Malibu Ken.”

“Tuesday” expands the chaos in Rock’s mind to his living space by going into comical detail about the miserable state of his home. Clutter lies everywhere. He’s getting older, and his posture and hygiene are going down the drain. He subsists almost exclusively on fast food. There’s a mushroom growing inside his car, etc. etc. “A little light cleaning, keep the spiders off his eating / Maybe one day he’ll go deeper, really exorcize the demon at the root / I’m in the sofa cushions over loose change / Black mold bathtub, homie, it’s a Tuesday.”

Fec’s beats, surprisingly low-key here considering his oeuvre, draw heavily from chiptune and 8-bit video game soundtracks, his sporadic vocals coated with generous glazes of a vocoder. They all sound fairly similar, to the point where it’s tough to tell one track from another. This isn’t necessarily to the record’s detriment, though. The backdrops are slick and quietly energetic, and they provide just enough oomph without stealing the spotlight from Aes’ slippery staccato flow.

If you’re not already a fan of Rock’s tongue-twisting juvenilia, Ken probably won’t convert you. Granted, hearing a 42-year-old man rap about picking boogers and eating Fluffernutter (at one point he even rhymes “workplace” with “jerkface”) is a smidge disconcerting. But to Rock’s credit, he gives signs that he may be getting tired of all this, too. “Sword Box” likens musical artists to con artists, willing to resort to cheap and flashy tricks in exchange for a quick buck. “Are we Donatello’s David or delicate Frozen Charlottes,” he soliloquizes on “Corn Maze,” “Even Davids know: in art there often will be no catharsis.”

Rock continues to demonstrate his ever-sharpening gifts as a storyteller throughout Ken, and the record’s best moments come when he unleashes these skills full-force. “Churro,” for instance, uses the tale of two eagles on a webcam eating a cat to illustrate the intangibility of beauty. “1+1=13” probes and skewers the world of superstition, ultimately revealing that no one—not even the “leaders of the free world blowing on dice”—really has a clue what the hell they’re doing, and at this point, we’re all just kind of stabbing blindly and hoping for the best. The frenetic “Save Our Ship” serves as the duo’s way of tackling Trump’s America, as is the unwritten law for any artist worth his salt in this turbulent age. It’s an intense splatter-portrait of a world gone mad. Religious hypocrites, corrupt police, rampant poverty and unemployment, politicians dead-set on ruling the universe—it’s all there. And watching the news only makes it all worse.

On the album’s masterful centerpiece “Acid King,” Aes brings to vivid, terrifying life the true tale of Ricky Kasso and Gary Lauwers. Barely pausing to catch a breath, he narrates a frantic play-by-play of the Satanism-obsessed Kasso’s 1984 murder of his high school classmate in the woods of Northport, NY. Fec’s keyboards tiptoe circles around him, building up to an aptly funereal closing flourish while Rock chants the haunting refrain: “It’s starting to feel like a nice night / Hold close to the highs and the white light / Hold close to the good you are drawn to / These woods were grown to disarm you.” It’s easy to see how this story would have had a lasting impact on a 12-year-old Ian Bavitz, who eventually went to the same high school Kasso attended.

Despite its breezy, fun atmosphere, there’s an air of true uncertainty pervading Malibu Ken. Maybe things will never be okay. Perhaps art, no matter how powerful, can’t save the world. Maybe we’re all doomed to suffer a cruel fate that’s beyond our control. But if this rip-roaring collaboration between a pair of eccentric screw-ups teaches us anything, it’s that everyone is trapped in the same struggle—and as long as we stick together, there’s still a chance we can rise above it all.

Rating: 8.1/10

Best Tracks: “Save Our Ship,” “Acid King,” “1+1=13”

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