4 out of 5
Label: Def Jux
Produced by: Blockhead, Aesop Rock
A huge step up musically, lyrically from Float, but man, if you started with Aesop with his latter albums – as I did – it’s pretty hard to go back to this stuff and evaluate it accurately. Rock was definitely at the forefront of this kind of literate, backpacked hip-hop, but whereas I can go back and hear the energy in, say, the first few Atmosphere releases, what I can’t help but hear on early AR is an artist who was still figuring out his sound. The lyricism was always there, but figuring out how to dial that in to something that balanced mind-blowing concepts and verbosity with musicality was a fleeting accomplishment; and musically, this is still indebted to the scene and Rock’s influences, and not especially unique. However, Float was defined by these limitations, whereas Labor Days is riddled with the potential of their abolishment: though dense as heck, a few spins starts to penetrate the narratives, helped along by some more accessible tracks which study the value of creative pursuits (No Regrets), or the paradox of the pressures we put on our ourselves (9-5ers Anthem). Armed by these narratives, you can go back and start to catch the winding and stuffed lines Aes lays down regarding the album’s topical theme of “wage slaves;” the disc opens up. This does expose that we’re still being led by a lyrics-first approach, which is true: the music is lacking. The production is better than Float, though, giving every track a strong backbone and, at the very least, a good hook; we even start to get some more playfulness in the compositions, which is where that promise comes in. Combine this with the way the album rewards relistens, and Labor Days punches its way toward memorability. There’s no doubt you’re listening to budding genius, even if it’s still a ways until it sounds like Aesop at his peak.
And there’s the key difference between other star backpackers of the era: Atmosphere as a reference, I might say that that duo has been trying to figure out how to get back to the edge of their original inspirations; Rock, on the other hand, has just been redefining and evolving and bettering his sound, release after release. Labor Days is an excellent album, but it’s also the past.