There’s something magical about the atmosphere of Malibu Ken. It’s curiously funky; angry and argumentative – in this case, those are different things. The project – the long-awaited collaborative outfit of Aesop Rock and producer TOBACCO – sounds like those weird wordless blocks of Adult Swim’s nighttime commercial breaks. In the midst of this oddball nostalgic venture, Rock’s joyous rhymes cut through the fierce smoke sharply. The mix of styles blend as smoothly as peanut butter and chocolate, and tastes equally as good.
Rock’s 20-plus year career has been built off self-aware and snarky lyricism. It lacks the searing cuts of Eminem’s prickly verbiage, but it isn’t the straight-edged wordplay of conscious artists like J. Cole. His wit shines through his winking similes and metaphors, and his love for cats has been well known for quite some time. With rap’s largest vocabulary at one point in time, Rock’s place in hip-hop’s hall of fame is noted. There’s not much more he can do thematically, so now, more than ever before, is time for experimentation. ‘Malibu Ken’ is the chosen moniker of his super-duo with TOBACCO, frontman of Pittsburgh’s electronic rock-act Black Moth Super Rainbow. Together, the pair unlock previously unexplored textures in Rock’s brain, and, in the process, open up a number of possibilities for further exploration in the future.
More than anything that Rock says, the most notable element of the project is the shoulder-shaking production. This isn’t anything singed with 808s and hi-hats. TOBACCO’s works are handmade like a toy-maker’s beloved figurines, with an equal amount of craftmanship on display. In 2007, Black Moth Super Rainbow opened for Rock on the latter’s North American tour. Rock became enamored with TOBACCO’s work back then, notably appearing on a track from TOBACCO’s break out 2008 album Fucked Up Friends. Their chemistry is immediately apparent once the album begins. A fierce and vast array of surprising, darting sounds zip between the eardrums like an intense game of ping-pong. There’s no slow, smooth, or dark sounds clouding this zany atmosphere; its vibrant nature exists next to its acidic and stringy textures – these beats are for tripping out to, not for meditation.
There hasn’t necessarily been a disconnect between Rock and his selection of beats over the years, but there’s always been an inkling of wonder as to the difference that boom-bap and his predilection for darkness would make if he were to attach himself to something a little more strange. Malibu Ken makes it apparent that this is Rock’s final form – blisteringly loud and clear, funny and charming. Whether he’s rapping about cats being devoured by birds or magic spells that make wallets disintegrate, the madcap energy that radiates in profuse waves makes it clear that Rock’s never felt more alive. It’s a body of work devoid of theme, strung together with precision by TOBACCO while Rock goes every which conceivable way. There are a few questionable mixing decisions – mainly “Sword Box” where Rock’s vocals are almost beneath the roaring production – but the vocals are just as strong as the angry noises behind them.
Certain moments emerge where everything melts into one euphoric orgy, and it sends chills down the spine. One such moment is “Dog Years,” where totalitarian ’80s synths rule over Rock’s disparate lines of imagery. Imagine construction workers building a skyscraper on the moon, decorated with neon lights. There’s so many sounds compiled onto the synths that it feels like a game of Tetris that plays to infinity. Rock manages to match the orgasmic back end with equally weird rhymes, spitting about everything from corndogs to dog ears. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s provocative. There aren’t many – if any – rappers matching this level of invention and imagination. On “Dog Ears,” as well as the majority of the ten-song LP, you feel as if you’re listening to the village bard tell a story that isn’t quite going anywhere, but you don’t care because it’s so damn captivating just to hear him talk.
Towards the end of Malibu Ken, things make an icier, woozier turn with “Purple Moss.” The closer is a lot warmer than what comes before it, and druggier, with its disembodied back end vocal. Rock continues to offer a strong tone throughout with lyricism that projects the listener into the astral realm. Its when this number closes that the full scope of the aesthetic at play becomes clear; Rock’s imaginative lyricism with TOBACCO’s feisty production hits the ear like searing butter in a pan on high heat, and there just aren’t any recent listening experiences that can compare. In the age of appetizer-length LPs, this ten-song opus might be the only album in the last year and a half that actually suffers because it is too short. It’s like traveling to the real life Malibu – no matter when you leave, you never feel like you got the full experience.