Aesop Rock - Daylight
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
His nostrils flared, and when they opened, the metal bar in his septum appeared, the ends curling out of his nostrils, into the light. He kept putting it off, muttering “he can’t fucking do this” as horns cut in, coarse snares licking across the track, and primordial refrain of “yes-yes-ya’ll” undercuting everything. He has never thought of rap as something for him. He adores Mastodon and the RX Bandits. He does not know how to do this.
In the kingdom of hip-hop, to borrow a Naipaul line, white people never forget that they are white.
Aesop Rock then, at least in myth, is what so many white, upper-middle class rap heads aspire to be: historically fluent, technically proficient, and basking in their own identity. Plus, according to rumor, he stayed indoors for an entire year gobbling up acid sheets. He watched TV and distilled the essence of contemporary malaise and paralysis. He went to a liberal arts college.
Better still, he’s remained wholly noncommercial, racking up a quiet, somewhat devoted fan base, with the same collegiate word of mouth buzz as a docile jam band. As you can probably guess, there’s a very careful question of audience working with Aesop Rock. I, and I suspect other white hip-hop scholar-enthusiasts, know gobs of white kids, usually devoted to another subgenre of pop (metal, indie, electronic) for whom Aesop is one of their only hip-hop-centered item of interest.
When “Daylight,” from 2001’s Labor Days, settles into its circuit of minor black-key loops and crashing SNES hums, and the listener moves past Aesop’s sprawling lines, loose in their enjambment and initially impenetrable in their content (“Honor / And I spell it with the ‘h’ I stole from heritage / Merit crutch stolen / Wretched refuse of my teeming resonance”), all becomes clear. Angels prodding the ignorant and complacent on street corners. The righteous telling everyone how sorry they’re going to be. Labor Days is Aesop’s album-length devotional to the trials and wounds of the post-WWII American wage slave, and “Daylight” is the first prayer.
After that crashing first stanza of consumerist iconography and spiritual death, he turns a single phrase into a mid-verse caesura—“And I’m sleeping now!”—that captures a peer group’s, my generation’s, unique psychological cycle of frustration, rage, pontification, and, finally, forfeiture.
Far from the post-Reagan white-flight rage of Marshall Mathers, or even the pre-fabricated pop mockery of Vanilla Ice, Aesop Rock and “Daylight” engage not just with whiteness, but with an implicitly powerful, educated whiteness: one that sees the fundamental ills in capitalism, and yet, despite its social clout, falls back on paralysis with barely an attempt at change. In “Daylight” Aesop is documenting a mild, temporary discomfort. A discomfort and resolution that only the powerful can accept.
I remember, and remark on that first story, the metal-devoted Midwestern boy attempting to freestyle, because it seems to me now to be so emblematic of the two paths through which contemporary white youths are wrangled. Either you are either the tourist, the ball cap experimenter, the slang adopter, the ethnic transgressor, in short, the “wigger.” You assume power at the outset. Or you are the archaist mole, burrowing into the tiered, honeycombed center of hip-hop through layers of obscurity, of beats either archaic or post-human, touching the counter commercial canon (Tribe, De La), and earning authenticity. You lower yourself and you dig.
Perhaps “Daylight” is simply a resolution, a note to the selfishness inherent in all transformations, whether from cultural outside to intimate, or in the quest for grand social change. Maybe power has less to do with it than I thought. As the song’s hook goes: “All I ever wanted to was pick apart the day / Put the pieces back together my way.”