I'll admit: my knowledge of hip-hop could, if I'm being generous, fill the back of a postcard. 2Pac, 2 Chainz — I wouldn't be able to name a song by either (but one of them's a hologram now, right?). Instead, you'll find me over here most days listening to my “Boots & Spurs” Pandora station. Yet months back, when I saw that Aesop Rock was returning to the State Theater, I promptly put the date on my calendar. This past Saturday, while almost everyone else crowded into Tampa to catch Modest Mouse at the Gasparilla Music Festival, I headed to St. Pete in anticipation of getting to witness some of the most — if not the most — literate, expressive hip-hop ever to be spat.
Homeboy Sandman opened the show. Hailing from Queens, Sandman (born Angel Del Villar II) had the scrappy, can-do, no-bullshit attitude for which native New Yorkers are known. Throughout his tracks, Sandman consistently goaded the crowd to make some noise, repeat after him and throw up their hands — what I assume to be typical hip-hop interactivity. But then, between songs that sounded more like slam poetry set to beats than songs with hooks and choruses, he'd take a minute to talk about less frivolous subjects, such as (and I'm paraphrasing loosely here) how America has a lot of problems, but it's still one of the best places to be, and if we'd all just embrace and love each other, it'd get even better. It was an unexpected bit of warmth coming from a guy wearing baggy cargo shorts and a beaded chain necklace. Sandman ended his set promoting his latest album, only available for purchase at shows and only available on antiquated cassette, appropriately titled Tour Tape. He explained it as a marketing move, saying if it had been released on CD, someone would rip it and put it online for everyone to steal without getting to share in the IRL experience of the show. Judging by the audience's response, he moved a fair number of units that night.
By the time Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic sauntered on stage behind DJ Abilities, the always-more-intimate-than-I-remember State Theater had filled up nicely, proving our modest Tampa Bay is large enough to support more than one national act on the same night (and on the same night as a giant mainstream hip hop fest over in Clearwater). Though Rock and Sonic shared billing and were touring to promote their latest Hail Mary Mallon album, Bestiary, the show belonged, undeniably, to Aesop Rock.
In the past, Rock (Ian Bavitz by birth) has said he preferred creating his music to performing it, but by this night's show — only his second time in St. Pete — all discomfort looked to have melted away. Anyone who's heard and tried to rap along with an Aesop Rock song knows it's not an easy feat. Cited as having one of the greatest vocabularies in hip-hop, Rock spewed lyrics that get even English majors reaching for the dictionary all at warp speed through a mush mouth that adds an extra layer of indecipherability, yet Rock delivered with panache while gesturing wildly, pacing across the stage, posing and offering over-exaggerated grins that rendered him downright cartoonish. The posturing, referring to the crowd throughout the night as “party people,” these moments provided much-needed levity in the midst of working his way through classics like “No Regrets,” “Day Light,” and “Catacomb Kids,” songs that tackle issues like following your dreams, finding certain levels of fame after existing in the underground, and the struggles of daily or creative life.
Rob Sonic, a talented and underrated emcee in his own right, and DJ Abilities had their respective moments in the spotlight, getting several songs each to shine. And yet, even then, no one shone brighter than Aesop. Put any other rapper up on stage against him, I guarantee the results would be the same: Aesop Rock would be left standing at the end. As he himself said in his take on the rap game, “Zero Dark Thirty”: "it's down from a huntable surplus to one.”