Field Guide for Transcendence: Aesop Rock’s Spirit World Field Guide

Ben Grenrock returns to the POW fold with a comprehensive survey of the rap veteran's ninth studio album.
By    November 17, 2020

We spent all our Labor Days hustlin’. Please support the workaholics over at Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

Ben Grenrock sends tidings from the sleeper car.

Some believe another world exists adjacent to our own, an assemblage of dimensions where the numinous, the nebulous, and the supernatural reign. It is the realm of ghosts, the stomping ground of shamans, the area code from which the static-swaddled voices of the dead call you up collect. As a rule, we and the entities of this Great Beyond stay in our respective planes. But rules are made to be broken. Legend has it, entry points into the spirit world are legion, often blinking open where you’d least expect them. Meditation, seances, psychoactive substances, head on collisions with despair or death, and bumping Wu Tang Clan while skateboarding through crisp autumn air have all been reported as viable portals into the spirit world. If you happen across once such gateway, whatever form it may take for you, enter at your own risk. You never know what you’ll find—or what will find you—once you cross over. 

That being said, it never hurts to be prepared. And this is the purported purpose of Aesop Rock’s eighth studio album, Spirit World Field Guide, as laid out in its introductory track: “To create a guide for anyone whose path may lead them to this unwavering otherness,” by sharing firsthand experiences in the spirit world. But the record’s opener is as much a warning as it is a mission statement. “Spirit world travel is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach,” intones Aes. “Swift and unprecedented consequences will follow your decision to breach this environment.” Which begs the question: if it’s so dangerous, why follow Aesop into the spirit world at all? 

The very existence of Spirit World Field Guide should be answer enough. The record stands as proof that for every wicked witch lurking in Oz, there’s also a good one, waiting to offer you some truly transcendent gift with a wave of her magic wand or bedazzled cordless mic. Listening to Spirit World Field Guide it becomes clear that during his various forays into the ether, Aesop Rock—who’d already spent the last quarter century becoming one of the most unfuckwithable lyricists and most technically adept rappers this side of the veil—reached into the spirit world and found a whole new gear in which to spit. Spirit World Field Guide might be his most complete artistic effort to date, a transcendent achievement in which the best elements of the rapper/producer’s past works are brought together in seamless and masterful harmony.

But even more importantly, it feels like a compendium of the supernatural coping mechanisms and existential balms harvested from the spirit world that allowed the person Ian Bavitz to become the best version of the musician Aesop Rock.

Aesop’s career can pretty much be divided into two phases: the pre- and post-Rhymesayers eras. This has nothing to do with Rhymesayers Entertainment or with record labels at all; it’s the result of Aesop Rock’s ever-improving skill as a producer and of a conscious decision he made to streamline, if not actually simplify, his notoriously dense raps. 2007’s None Shall Pass, is a good example of pre-Rhymesayers Aesop: metaphors as vivid as they are verbose Matroyshka-dolled inside of more metaphors, spat predominantly over Blockhead or El-P beats thick with the grit of a New York City long ago buried beneath organic incense emporiums and cupcake boutiques. But ever since releasing his first self-produced album, Skelethon, on Rhymesayers in 2012 Aesop has been working towards a different style.

“I think I’ve learned over time to keep the denseness and the lexicon in there while making it something that’s easier to perform and maybe isn’t working against the listener’s ear as much,” Aesop told Rolling Stone after Skelethon dropped. The tailor-made beats, the air-tight vocal delivery Aes found between their 1’s and 2’s, the relative parsability of the lyrics on Skelethon—all of it was reprised on the The Impossible Kid four years later, only more so. 

Spirit World Field Guide goes beyond simply continuing that progression. Yes, Aesop’s writing has never been this intelligible and he recites it over the strongest collection of beats he’s ever produced. But it’s also the best he has ever performed his songs. Technicalities like cadence, diction, and inflection, aren’t often talked about when we talk about hip-hop today, but enunciating as cleanly as Aes does is no small feat, nor is it easy to make millisecond syllables sound conversational, even playful. That Aesop does so while ripping through some of the most complicated flows he’s ever deployed is a serious feat. Songs like “Gauze” and “Boot Soup” bring all of these elements together in a way that ought to make even the most vehement detractor of so-called “lyrical hip-hop” doff their fitted cap and offer begrudging props.

If Aesop Rock keeps trending in this direction there’s a good chance he’ll one-up himself yet again on his next record, but until then there’s an entire spirit world to bask in. 

Strap in, get comfortable, and bask at your leisure because Spirit World Field Guide is no quick jaunt through the woods; it’s a comprehensive manual for psychic survival and it doesn’t cut any corners. “Hello From the Spirit World,” the aforementioned intro, is the only one of Spirit World Field Guide‘s whopping twenty-one songs—the most Aesop has ever put on a single album—that doesn’t include rapping. The twenty cuts that follow are chock full of it, with nary a skit, feature, interlude, or significantly weaker verse among them. And while four short and relatively straightforward tracks serve as palate cleansers, breaking up Aes’ signature torrents of imagery with concise, bite-size verses, they stand toe to toe with the album’s more maximalist offerings. 

Two of these brief tracks, “Dog at the Door” and “1 to 10,” are some of the most revealing and personal songs Aesop has ever written. Though he’s penned many verses over the years that serve as dispatches from deep in the trenches of a life-or-death battle for his mental health, it’s hard to remember an Aesop Rock song in which he’s laid out some of the root causes of his struggles, however quotidian—here they take the form of paranoia and debilitating back pain, respectively—so clearly and candidly. Hearing Aesop get “betrayed by his lumbar spine” on “1 to 10” is probably the record’s saddest moment, which is noteworthy considering that his past albums usually have at least one brutal gut punch of a track. Spirit World Field Guide is absent a “Gopher Guts” or a “Get Out the Car.”

Instead, the record feels suffused with a sense of both acceptance and determined optimism. The self-imposed solitude of “Kodokushi” is embraced rather than lamented. And on closer “The Four Winds”, Aesop raps that he’s okay with setbacks even if they feel like “losing a shoe in the mud”; he knows by now that when the clock strikes midnight he’ll have made it home, both kicks on his feet, even if he’s had to traverse a different dimension to get there. 

This resilience, taken together with the chronic setbacks Aesop highlights on “Dog at the Door” and “1 to 10”, combine to form Spirit World Field Guide’s loose overall message: even though journeys to the spirit world might yield temporary healing for your most private and festering wounds, that healing won’t last forever. Before long, your back will go out again, your old patterns will return, and just like that you’re back to being harried by floating skulls that just won’t shut up and hearing approaching kidnappers in the rustle of every leaf. But that’s no reason to stop searching the spirit world for answers. With each repetition of this cycle lessons are learned. Your deepest pit becomes ever-shallower as wisdom fills it grain by grain. The next setback doesn’t sting like the last one did. The dark cloud passes ever-faster. “Got lost got found,” Aesop recalls from the durian-scented streets of Thailand on stand-out track “Sleeper Car”. A beat later he muses, “Got a feeling I should lose it all again.”

Aseop arrives at the spirit world in a number of ways—on “Side Quest” via skateboard, on “Button Masher” via space shuttle—but of all the personalized portals Aesop has discovered, it appears good old-fashioned air travel provides the most direct route to the growth-inducing episodes cataloged on Spirit World Field Guide. During the trip to Thailand recounted on “Sleeper Car” Aesop, “watched a billion bats exploding out a mountain cave,/ climbed a couple hundred feet to stare into the mouth and change”—an “unconventional exorcism” that left his “every atom individually cleansed and repositioned.”

On Cambodia-travel-log “Holy Waterfall,” a friendship he strikes up with a local who, “can tell you what it is to wake up with a tank in the yard,” forces Aesop to reframe his pain, privilege, and fundamentally, “question what [his] days even are.” And single “Pizza Alley” finds Aesop Rock in Peru, rapping his way from the “master class in open world design,” that is the city of Lima into the depths of the Amazonian jungle, where, surrounded by ayahuasca sipping curanderos and deadly electric eels, he unburdens his darkest secrets to two river-dwelling dolphins who give him some valuable life advice.  

Hip-hop travel writing is a fairly untapped niche, and probably for good reason. There are a lot of way to get it wrong, and yet Aesop avoids all the potential pitfalls into triteness or exotification. The most obvious of these would be caricaturize the locales he writes about by building his beats out of their traditional music. But where he could have used gamelan or charango, Aes stays true to both his production style and his concept by sending eerie textures to haunt pipe organ melodies and dropping kicks that thump like coffin lids. By infusing his beats with a hefty dose of woo-woo rather than presenting them as novel postcards, he makes sure we see the places he visits from the vantage point of the other side. Similarly, the lyrics still feel unquestionably like Aesop Rock lyrics. The foreign imagery is incorporated into Aes’ unique combination of braggadocio, self-deprecation, and sardonic wit, rather than it being the sole point of the song, keeping the focus on the lasting effect these places have had on Aesop rather than the effect that he’s had on them. 

These travel narratives, like the other songs on Spirit World Field Guide that center on a specific topic, are the record’s easiest to understand on a second or third listen; even in 2020, good luck trying to catch everything Aes says on the first pass. The density of Aesop Rock’s lyrics has always demanded that listening to him be an active, rather than a passive, pursuit, and that is still true on Spirit World Field Guide. Some people think that’s fun; some people don’t have the patience for it. Potæto, potäto.

But whether you enjoy piecing together the puzzles in Aesop’s work or not, there is some beautiful writing there if you’re willing to do the requisite decoding—a process that becomes much easier when given a context in which to place the syncopated words and images as they zip by. On Skelethon and The Impossible Kid Aesop made effective use of topics as decryption keys, rending songs about therapy, haircuts, his favorite donut shop, or his cat, a lot easier to grasp than their stream of consciousness counterparts. But in the past, thematic content sometimes came at the expense of pre-Rhymsayer’s-Aes-level figurative language and depth. Not so on Spirit World Field Guide, where a delicate balance is struck between immersive narratives, grounding context, and Aesop’s vivid lines. 

And the same is true in reverse. Even the songs on Spirit World Field Guide that appear to lack their own clear concept seem to carry an unprecedented immediacy. But perhaps this is due to the fact that there’s an overarching encryption key for the whole album: the spirit world. This is what makes even the rapless “Hello From the Spirit World,” an integral part of the record. Without it, it’s difficult to say if Spirit World Field Guide would be recognizable as a concept album. But after “Hello From the Spirit World” has announced it as such, telling listeners to hear each of its songs in the context of detailing either Aesop’s sundry modes of entering the spirit world or the experiences he has therein, finding threads to hold on to while awash in supernatural anthem “Jumping Coffin” or the swag-steeped excellence of “Crystal Sword” feels intuitive rather than frantic. 

The spirit-world framing even helps when reading what’s going on between the lines in grounded songs like “Sleeper Car”. Consider the following bars:

Golden lotus that show off a pretty pantone
and grow in river water that’ll melt your fucking hand off.
Damn. It’s funny cause I think I smile too.
People thinking you’re okay until you take ‘em to the root.

That “Sleeper Car” is clearly set in Thailand helps with visualizing the image of a lotus floating atop polluted water. Knowing that we’re also supposed to see everything in the context of a survival guide for the spirit world—which, okay, let’s just drop the metaphor already and call it what it is: the human unconscious, the mysterious and unfathomable dimensions of ourselves—makes it that much easier to connect this image of a flower blooming in spite of the pollution it grows in with Aesop’s meaning: that he smiles despite all the psychological grime below the surface.

There’s a bar on the last song of The Impossible Kid in which Aesop worries that he might have to choose between his personal happiness and his life as an artist. It’s a legitimate concern for anyone who’s found success transmuting their demons into art. But his newest album proves that this is a false dichotomy—one of those tricky ones that make a dangerous kind of sense when viewed from the same dark place that one’s art and the demons that proceeded it came from. Spirit World Field Guide doesn’t succeed in spite of the way it diverges from Aesop’s heretofore best work; it does so because of it. 

Sometimes, it takes getting out of your environment, getting out of yourself, to free you from the bonds of rigid thinking, or worse. For anyone looking to break out of old patterns while stuck inside our homes or countries, twenty expertly crafted portals to a different realm couldn’t have come at a better time. Most of us are long overdue for a vacation to the spirit world, and Aesop Rock has rapped us an infinity of ectoplasmic tickets out of the void, now streaming across dimensions. 

See you on the other side.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!