Long Island emcee/producer Aesop Rock is a polarizing figure, even for those familiar with subterranean hip-hop. His rhymes are so dense, verbose and packed with references and surreal imagery that they’re often dismissed as “too nerdy” or “too wordy” for some listeners’ tastes. Throughout his career, from the now-defunct Def Jux to the resilient Rhymesayers, that’s been the frequent challenge when it comes to his music: To divine meaning from his intricacies, especially from his concepts that are straightforward. 2001’s “Labor Days” was about labor in American society and the concept of “wage slaves”; 2020’s “Spirit World Field Guide” utilized outdoor camping imagery as something of a therapeutic approach. Fast-forward to 2023’s “Integrated Tech Solutions”, where Aes appears to satirize tech companies, their products, and the level to which they’re embedded in everyday human life.
Once again, this solo album is entirely produced by Aesop Rock himself, with his production firmly planted in the electro-funk, avant-garde days of Def Jux. The album title, “ITS” when shortened, is the name of the concept’s fictional tech company. The album begins with an infomercial for the company, in which Aes sends-up old tech commercials from the ‘80s to now that offer buyers “a better life.” It’s reminiscent of the “I.D.A.” skit from Masta Ace’s “Disposable Arts” album, which mocked the state of hip-hop in the early 2000s. Getting into the music, we begin with the album’s first single, “Mindful Solutionism”, with its lyrical exploration of technological innovation over ‘80s synth-pop. Aes has been fond of utilizing animals as metaphorical stand-ins for people, and “Infinity Fill Goose Down” is no exception, with its retro production and video format. Armand Hammer member billy woods provides a guest verse on “Living Curfew” with its at-times slurred production. “Pigeonometry” has Aes taking a similar concept that fellow Def Jux alums Cannibal Ox did on “Pigeon”, while on “Kyanite Toothpick”, Aes utilizes a dark and moody lo-fi beat to reflect his ode to late night activities.
Despite the technocratic theme of the album, Aes finds plenty of tracks in which to discuss personal topics. “Salt & Pepper Squid”, thematically a variation of “Kick, Push”, is his take on skateboarding. The “Push It” vocal sample from Salt-N-Pepa is a nice touch as well. The imagery evoked on the song “Time Moves Differently Here” is deliberate as it references that late ‘90s anti-marijuana TV commercial with a car full of potheads repeatedly going through a fast-food drive-thru and finally hitting a little girl riding her bike. Over surreal psychedelia, Aes applies that idea to his own pot-induced cravings for fast food, rhyming imaginary food combos such as “Double-triple Texas angus steakinator waffle sticks / Crispy ranch and activated maple eggroll taco twists / Panko-crusted flaming gator honey mango lava ribs / Make that shit a combo and do not forget the condiments.” It also doubles as commentary on the health dangers of fast-food suppressed by the consumer-targeting mass media. The narrative “Aggressive Steven” recalls a situation where Aes once came home to find that a junkie had broken in and entered. The ending reminds of those bleak anti-drug movies where nothing is solved by their finish.
The track “Bermuda” is a head nodder, it’s got dusty electro snares and bass-heavy synth production. Singer Leilani performs the hook with distorted vocals. The single “By the River” is the most traditional, compared to the rest of the album. It’s driven by minimal drums and several jazz samples, while lyrically, Aes details his love for rivers, referencing various rivers throughout the world. The accompanying video is like an extended ITS commercial filled with subliminal messages and tech corporation jargon/slogans. Aes can make even a cherished childhood memory come to life with humor, rap skill for rhyme schemes, detail, and still contain a message pertaining to the album’s theme. On “100 Feet Tall”, he raps about a time during the early 1980s when he and his family met Mr. T at a deli. Mind you, this was long before smartphones and the term “pics, or it didn’t happen”:
The bouncy, synth bass-laden “All City Nerve Map” has Aes boasting that he “can draw a map to a raw nerve”, implying he knows what easily upsets people. Fellow Hail Mary Mallon member Rob Sonic provides an assist on “Forward Compatibility”, and then we arrive at the one track on the album that would qualify as a skit. “On Failure”, Aes relates to artist Vincent Van Gogh and his misunderstood nature and output. “Solid Gold” is Aesop at his most complex, but then tones it down on “Vititus”, a dedication to his late grandmother. With “Black Snow” closing out the album, it ends with “ITS is not a cult” to coincide with the concept. Many tech companies promoting lifestyle brands have been specifically marketing to groups and the cultures associated with them. On, “Integrated Tech Solutions”, Aesop Rock turned a cynic’s eye to that practice and, in both abstract and direct manners, flipped it inside-out.