Two of underground hip-hops most dazzling wordsmiths combine to push each other to new heights.
“Soldering an organ from the ’70’s/Other hand harvesting the organs of my enemies”
With everyone’s eyes on 2014’s other sophomore record from a celebrated rap duo, Run the Jewels 2, Hail Mary Mallon’s return seems to have slipped a little under the radar. Or, at least that’s the way it seems from where I’m sitting: I’m not going to claim to have my finger all that close to the hip hop pulse. But if that is the case then it’s fair to say that it’s at least partly due to RTJ still seeming like something of an unlikely collaboration, surprising in both it’s existence and just how well it works, even now el-p and Killer Mike have been running together for a little while. By comparison Rob Sonic and Aesop Rock joining forces is amongst the least surprising collaborations you could name; after all they’ve have been buddies since way back, both occupying a similar overly verbose indie rap space, and have guested on each others albums since way back when. But maybe the real reason that RTJ is getting all the column inches is that RTJ is all about fantastically overblown ego and machismo whereas HMM’s MO is pure self deprecation – there aren’t too many rap duos who’d use, “Happy to be on the food chain at all” as the main hook for a song. Ego is always more saleable in the get-dat-money world of rap music.
You’d think given that both Aesop and Rob Sonic are coming off arguably career best solo records they’d be forgiven for showing a bit of bravado, but even when they do pen a line that seems to subscribe to the rappers-living-large cliché it’s a bizzare kind of opulence they’re celebrating: “The Mallons get the royal treatment/Oils and free shit and rare collections/Of falcons and helmets and bears with weapons.” But hey, it’s a style that suits them and one they’ve both run with for a long time. There’s no real need for braggadocio when you can let your skills on the mic and at crafting the beats do the talking – and that’s exactly what they do on Bestiary, one of the most intricately woven and out-and-out fun set of hip hop tracks of 2014, a ceaseless volley killer lines and humungous beats.
“Undead Kennedy as heathen’s hammer/Stakes through the heart of the teens and campers/Who came for the trees and the cheesy banter/Now they pray to the cross in between your antlers”
HMM’s first outing, 2011’s Are you gonna eat that?, had some fine moments but was pretty incidental in the grand scheme of things – it was a little too cosy, as you’d probably expect from two old knuckleheads from back in the day putting a record together. These days they’re operating on a higher level – both men scaled new heights in the intervening years and neither man wants to be the one letting the side down now. Aesop, fresh from doing Skelethon entirely on his own, takes up the bulk of the production duties here, with added turntable acrobatics and cut-up hooks from DJ Big Whizz, and the beats come hard and tight, both guys reeling off their usual verbose rhymes with impressive lyrical dexterity, dropping quotable line after quotable line after quotable line, both pushing each other that extra mile to outdo one another. It’s business as usual from them in terms of subject matter – a strange menagerie of tangents and non-sequiturs, occupying some gonzo world of bums and weirdos, perennial underdogs and gentlemen eccentrics, occult dabblings and geeky ramblings. They’re both adapt at playing for laughs but the result doesn’t feel throwaway like a lot of their first full length did – sure, there are plenty of dumb punchlines and references that age them as the dudes pushing 40s they are (“Police are under the bridge demanding/That I at least turn back into Rick Moranis”) but they come so densely and backed by a bass heavy sonic blunderbuss. And when they do go full comedy like on the decidedly silly Whales, a riff on money obsessed rhymes, the jokes are good enough to bear repeated listens. Even the skits are quite funny, the ‘Fundraiser concert!’ punchline raising a smile every time, though those will no doubt get boring in time (as skits always, always do).
So whilst they haven’t necessarily got more serious since their last outing but they have got even more assured. Both guys know exactly who they are, perhaps most accurately sunmed up by Aesops’s line on album lynchpin Kiln “Never had a gold chain never had a cold beer/had a codename and moral code he held dear.” There’s something humble, silly, geeky and yet proud about that couplet that seems to encapsulate the attitude they possess. And whereas their first record as a duo was good – it’s always a delight to hear two such talented dudes goofing off and having fun – this one feels solid and confident enough to stand up to either man’s increasingly high solo standards.