Editor’s note: Parker Evans is an economics senior. This is his Mustang Daily music columnist debut.
Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson aren’t likely to show up on the same Pandora station.
Aesop’s been hovering around the underground rap scene for over a decade now, and Dawson’s made a career out of quirky anti-folk. It’s an intriguing pairing made up of two gifted songwriters, but the debut of The Uncluded just isn’t as great as the sum of its parts.
Strange as it may seem, it’s not a completely unprecedented match. Dawson was just about the only person Aesop trusted enough to collaborate with on last year’s criminally underrated “Skelethon.” On those songs, Dawson was in his world, but here they share the stage evenly.
The album “Hokey Fright” isn’t far from a 50/50 split for airtime, but curiously, neither party does much to accommodate the other.
Instead of blending together to form a potent secret sauce, “Hokey Fright” is mostly oil and vinegar. Aesop’s beats have historically sounded like they were formed in some kind of dark industrial dungeon, but here he mostly raps over campfire acoustic guitar strums. He and Dawson trade verses and hooks in a cadence that sounds unnatural, even after a handful of listens.
Both artists are versatile. Dawson has an uncanny ability to find depth in the simplest of phrases, and even for all the occasional morbid subject matter, Aesop has always been overlooked as a genuinely funny rapper.
Too often, though, “Hokey Fright” seems more like an exercise in atmospheric dissonance than a proper album.
One song is a PSA about organ donation, featuring a classic Aesop dissertation on his favorite subject: cutting up bodies (never violent, only curiously medical).
From there, we cut to “Superheroes,” a 38-second track, the lyrics of which consist entirely of Aesop and Dawson literally listing different types of sandwiches.
One of the album’s most affecting tracks, “Bats,” deals with Aesop’s grief over the death of a friend. But this is also the album that contains “WYHUOM,” in which they each call each other and ask, “Why’d you hang up on me?” over and over for three minutes. It’s worse than frustrating — it’s insulting. Intentional dissonance is a major theme of The Uncluded, but the album’s perpetual smirk leaves us thinking that the joke’s on us. Rather than feeling challenging, “Hokey Fright” can be outright anti-listener.
That’s not to say it’s irredeemable.
These two are both talented artists capable of producing some brilliant musical moments. Aesop’s wordy, hyper-literate flow will still send you gleefully to RapGenius, Wikipedia and your dictionary, and he can still leave you holding your head with twisting, enigmatic lines like, “Outside the influential arms of your idolatries/The object will be turning goodbyes into good biology.”
Moldy Peaches fans, too, will find something to love, as Dawson’s introspective verses on “Delicate Cycles” are particularly strong. The closest “Hokey Fright” comes to putting all the pieces together is on “Teleprompters” and its powerful refrain urging Aesop he needs to get out more. It’s both artists’ best work on the album, and it provides a tantalizing glimpse into what could have been if they could have tapped into a whole record’s worth of whatever magic they found on that track.
It’s clear that Aesop and Dawson enjoy each other’s company, but good chemistry doesn’t always make for a good album. By the time album closer “Tits Up” rolls around, the listener is fed up with both fun Aesop and dark Aesop, and they certainly don’t want to hear Dawson’s attempt at a rap that sounds ripped straight out of her “Juno” soundtrack. “Hokey Fright” has more than a handful of shining moments, but it feels more like a test of patience than a good listen.