Ben Grenrock knows the best way to skip school is fake lice.
Having traded one too many beanies or Mets caps since their 2015 collaboration Lice, veteran rappers Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman once again found themselves infested with the parasites on Lice Two: Still Buggin’. And therefore some nit-picking seems to be in order. The phrase “nit-picking”—looking for minuscule or unimportant errors with the intention doling out criticism—is derived from the process of sifting through a person’s hair in search of nits, or tiny lice eggs. But on Lice Two the pair of MCs aren’t scrutinizing each other’s scalps. They turn the process of nit-picking on themselves, examining the more quirky or imperfect aspects of their respective existences with a fine tooth comb deft enough to expose Aesop Rock’s obsession with Game of Thrones and Sandman’s arousal at the smell of McDonald’s French fries.
On opener “Zilch,” both rappers begin the process of picking at their personal blemishes in earnest. Homeboy Sandman describes his place of origin as being somewhere, “where everybody got unmitigated gall but no refrigerators filled.” This serves to explain his propensity for stealing food and his plan to live off borrowed money until he dies in debt. Aes chimes in divulging that he’d rather be “rearranging stickers on his Rubick’s Cube” than playing fair, and that he routinely sups with, “both the wicked and the righteous,” because “it’s hard to tell the difference though a history of violence.”
Confessions like these comprise the bulk of the album’s lyrical content. But “Zilch” doesn’t just introduce Lice Two’s primary mechanism, it also contains the work’s central theme. The track’s hook declares: “I only move aside for the sun / I don’t really move aside that much,” and it’s with this stubborn defiance that the duo brandish their flaws and oddities, claiming them as pieces of their unique individuality rather than vehicles for change.
“Zilch”’s beat, a jaunty blend of playful glockenspiel, syncopated synth chords, and mean-mugging fuzz, was produced by Dan Hayden. Ever heard of him? Me neither. The UK beat-smith, whose wealth of talent is apparent a mere five seconds into the song, has 981 SoundCloud followers at the time of this writing. Putting under appreciated talent on blast had to be part of the intention behind the making of Lice Two. Including Dan Hayden’s contribution, four of the album’s five songs are produced by largely unheard of musicians. Mondee, SoberMindedMusic, and RTNC each provide production dripping with their own flavors of bizarre badassery, keeping with the album’s reverence for uniqueness.
The skill of these producers is evident in the fact that none of their beats sound out of place arranged around Lice Two’s resident banger, “Oatmeal Cookies.” Produced by Aesop himself, the bass on “Oatmeal Cookies” is so fat it seems to nearly buckle under its own weight. As if the fiber-rich ingredient in the track’s namesake wasn’t already enough, blasted on even a moderately capable sound system, Aes’ beat shakes one’s very bowels with such ferocity it is advisable to only listen to it whilst in lunging distance of a toilet.
Aesop opens “Oatmeal Cookies” with the lines, “Hated myself since before it was cool / faced death like an orphan to gruel / pardon the drool.” If hating one’s self is now cool, Aesop might be culpable for making it so. The artful way in which Aesop and Sandman claim bold ownership of behavior typically judged as undesirable makes a morning spent setting up a battle scene (replete with trebuchets) in one’s kitchen while clad in a tattered bathrobe, an identity defining hobby rather than the escapist behavior of a depressed person. It may be impossible to totally ignore the self-hate that comes from always feeling judged, but the rappers know, “Fitting in is a fools errand / unworthy to emulate.” Self-affirmation wins out in the end.
Re-contextualizing the symptoms of misfortune or self-hatred as superhuman uniqueness is a big part of what make Lice Two fantastic, but the best thing about this Stones Throw release is the surprising way the vastly different styles of Aes and Mr. Sandman mesh perfectly. While some of Aesop’s past collaborators (Rob Sonic in rap group Hail Mary Mallon or Busdriver on this blistering single) share his coded verbosity and maximalist style, he’s found something of a yang to his yin in Homeboy Sandman.
Aes has ever been the master of crafting flawlessly structured Jenga towers of syllables. He packs in an almost impossible breadth of inflection, image, and metaphor into his verses while maintaining an astonishing level of rhythmic tightness. His command of both virtuosity and discipline is best imagined as a Rachmaninoff concerto being played by one of those creepy player pianos from HBO’s Westworld. Only with soul.
Homeboy Sandman is more or less his stylistic opposite. A king of negative space, Sandman is an artist who paints as much with the canvas—or in his case the silences between words or within lines—as he does with color. And whereas Aesop’s meticulously forged metaphors can take literal years of listening to deconstruct and are delivered with regimented efficiency, Sandman tends to spit ingratiatingly conversational bars a little behind the beat, giving the impression he is sitting in the car with you casually freestyling gems like, “Lice got a secret handshake / that includes painting a landscape / and equal distribution of the syrup between the top and bottom pancakes,” right off the top.
Take these lines from “Oatmeal Cookies” as an example of just how differently Aesop and Sandman approach four bars.
Prickly disposition from a mission statement riddled/
with the crippling misdirection of a million jaded middle men/
Pretending to be different from the businesses they meddle in/
before the whistle blowers separate the skin from skeleton/
Backstage is like a bat cave/
I reach out of it to act strange/
I hit from a broken back without a back brace/
Went and met my fiancée on a back page
Some listeners may find a lone Aesop Rock overwhelming and impenetrable, while others may see Homeboy Sandman too laidback to hold their attention on his solo work. But united on Lice Two they manage to provide either the breathing room or the technical pizzazz necessary to enhance each other’s performance, even finding some stylistic middleground on the track “Mud,” where Sandman drops some uncharacteristically layered metaphors and Aesop Rock takes his tongue off the gas just a little.
Lice Two: Still Buggin’ is chock full of things that just shouldn’t add up. Nit-picking through negativity leads to a sense of pride. Unheard of producers deliver instrumentation of the highest quality. And two MC’s late into their careers (each has dropped seven albums) are writing and rapping as well, if not better, as they ever have in their lives. In light of these oddities, it seems anything is possible. Maybe contracting recurring bouts of lice isn’t some kind of biblical plague at all. Maybe it’s exactly what we need.