w/ Rob Sonic & DJ Big Wiz and Busdriver. $18 adv., $20 doors. 9 p.m., Feb. 11. Toad's Place, 300 York St., New Haven, toadsplace.com
Last July, Aesop Rock handed Bob's Donut & Pastry Shop an absolute dreamboat of an endorsement. For Skelethon, his sixth album, the rapper known otherwise as Ian Bavitz assembled a song called "Fryerstarter" dedicated to the shop found at 1621 Polk Street in his current hometown of San Francisco. Like the rest of Rock's oeuvre, the track is fidgety, unpredictable, and densely packed with evocative left-of-field references and wicked turns of phrases. Over a sparkling, undemanding beat, the man eyes all angles: the scenery ("a bright fluorescent Heaven"), the sacred cooking process ("Every night at 12, they would march out from the back/With a tray of raw dough for the pool of hot fat"), the varied clientele ("Babysitter, cop, thief/Reverend, body glitter, botched C-section, bronze teeth") and the saliva-inducing possibilities of the menu ("Will they go for maple, custard, buttermilk or wolfsbane?"). Loop "Fryerstarter" a couple of times and the thought of sampling Bob's manna for yourself turns from "maybe" to "when."
A friend of Rock's introduced him to Bob's by telling him about the giant donuts they sell. Rock ordered one for a birthday party and that hooked him. He speaks as highly of the shop's atmosphere as its eats: Bob's is safe, has a TV going, is open around the clock (Cooking starts at midnight) and is run by friendly folks. "Because of the schedule I keep, a place like that really fit well into my life," Rock says in an e-mail interview. "It's more of an old-school shop where you can watch the dough float around in the fryer right in front of you. A regular glazed donut fresh out the fryer is pretty top-notch, though they also make buttermilk donuts there, which are just otherworldly."
Capitalizing on such an esoteric, fascinating subject is his specialty. Elsewhere on Skelethon, the 36-year-old uses the especially candid "Grace" to relive a standoff between an 11-year-old Aesop Rock and his parents over the kid's refusal to eat green beans. The man has an expansive cultural vocabulary, and he has an enviable knack for squeezing topsy-turvy wordplay into narratives, creating thousands of miniature carnivals with rides you never imagined existed. "Much of what I do is kinda daisy-chain these thoughts together and let them ricochet around," he says.
However, he maintains a deep disdain for the reccurring criticisms that his songs amount to inedible word salad coated with tasty dressing. "I'm no genius by a long shot, but these songs are not nonsensical. That's pretty preposterous," he said in a 2007 Guernica interview. "I'd have to be a genius to pull this many nonsensical records over people's eyes."
One of the downsides/upsides of Rock's persona is that he prefers to let the words on the record do the heavy lifting and shies away from revealing too much otherwise. He projects a warm, humble and open persona away from his records, but even then, there's a furtiveness to him that leaves big questions floating around about how and why he concocts his hip-hop.
In an effort to crack open Rock and shine light on new spaces, I ask about what other media he consumes for inspiration. Remarkably, he didn't read or write much poetry in his youth, and in discussing his interests nowadays, he never brings the subject up. He reads lots of science journals, skims online for "articles that intrigue me" and watches movies and TV. He recently finished Bernie, all of Fringe and the first season of Game of Thrones — all of which he enjoyed. "I watch this stuff to just take it all in: stories, dialogue, scenes, etc. It's not always consciously worked [into my music]. I think I just retain info best by watching and listening, so it all swims around upstairs until maybe it can be spit back out in some form or fashion," he says. "I realize you are looking for specifics, but I don't know that it always works that way."
Trying for the "how" on his work produced so-so results. What about the "why"? "It's really difficult to describe what it does for me. I've heard people describe writing and making art as therapeutic — I've probably used that term myself — but I don't think that is entirely accurate," he says. "I don't know why or how, but I need to do this. If it's therapy, it's not like I go from sad to happy after writing some lines. Just getting infatuated with something [and] going into something to form a completely unique relationship between yourself and that thing [is what is] rap for me. It's just a part of what needs to happen. I realize that's vague, but that's just how it is."