“Now we the American working population
Hate the fact that eight hours a day
Is wasted on chasing the dream of someone that isn’t us
And we may not hate our jobs
But we hate jobs in general
That don’t have to do with fighting our own causes.”
This wordy excerpt is not a speech by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but a refrain from loquacious Long Islander Aesop Rock, and it serves as the thesis for his third album, 2001’s Labor Days. Filled to the brim with thesaurus-mandating verses about hopes, dreams, and working class anxieties, this banner release from underground hip-hop royalty label Definitive Jux has taken on many meanings to many people over the past 19 years. To some, it was the pipeline to underground rap music, whether the entry point opened through mixtapes passed around by that hip neighbourhood kid or through hours spent playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, which features the opening track as one of its soundtrack’s many stand out hip-hop attractions. To some, (admittedly one demographic, primarily; white middle class kids who were looking for a way into the rapidly growing genre) it served as the artsier alternative to albums like The Marshall Mathers LP, featuring wordplay that equaled Eminem’s but didn’t rely on the shock value or constant baiting of the era’s MTV regulars. In 2020 however it stands as, in this writer’s/fan’s opinion, among the greatest albums in any genre to wrestle with a theme that has constantly been a mainstay in hip-hop since its inception: work, and the struggles of working people against the people who try to keep their dreams away from them.
Class is a theme that has often manifested in many diverse ways in hip-hop music, most conspicuously coming into play via the commercially successful yet oft-misunderstood mafioso subgenre that is filled with mythological tales that take inner-city Black kids like Shawn Carter and Nasir Jones from the Marcy Homes and Queensbridge Houses to the penthouses in lower Manhattan. Eminem, to name another mainstream artist, is often credited with connecting to Middle America to rap specifically because of the underclass anxiety he touched on through his shock jock stories. Aesop Rock comes from a decidedly different world from that of Jay-Z, Nas, or Eminem. Starting out as a skater kid armed with a dictionary and a sampler, and inspired by artists from KMD to Dead Kennedys, Rock emerged at a time when alternative hip-hop artists like Mos Def and Company Flow were operating in a post-Biggie New York. His first two albums circulated through NYC’s underground and eventually gained the young Long Islander a reputation for verbosity. Buried beneath his heavy lexicon were stories laced with working class anxiety; it wasn’t until Labor Days that this artistic statement became its most pronounced, direct, and, for those who are deliberate listeners and recognize the frustrations that inspire the labyrinth of words he’s laying down, its most cathartic.
Opening with the blaring synth blasts of “Labor,” Rock starts things out with a question: “Who put the monkey wrench in well-oiled perfectionist emblem/Just to watch these monitors spit white noise through your office space”. Right off the bat, we are asking who has sabotaged the system, one that has been romanticized as the perfect life…an assertion that is nothing more than a symbol, according to the MC…into trapping the proletariat class into a life spent wasting away in front of a computer (or a toolbox) for a dream that isn’t theirs. Using pop culture references–1973’s animated sci-fi classic Fantastic Planet, where large blue aliens enslave and hegemonize earthling humans; to Spider-Man villain Green Goblin, who hides his true identity, wealthy industrialist Norman Osborne, behind a menacing flying monster who terrorizes New York City; and to the underclass anarchy of 1979’s The Warriors, Rock looks at class struggle as a spectacle that has been taken advantage of by the ruling class. He’s left to work for the rest of his life until he passes on (“I work past the surface/I work on what I love, I work to service all my burdens/And I’ll work until this here little flat line closes the curtains”).
Even if it is among his most recognized tracks courtesy of THPS4, “Labor” feels like just an intro track compared to what follows, which is the crowd favourite “Daylight.” Anchored by a calm, melancholy beat that could easily accompany an early morning commute to one’s crappy day job or a late night ride home from said job, Rock longs for control over his life and his dreams in the earnestly sung chorus: “All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day, put the pieces back together my way.” Confucian bits of grounded wisdom and metaphor fill the verses of this standout track, as poetic as “His origami dream is beautiful/But man, those wings will never leave the ground/Without a feather and a lottery ticket, now settle down” to as direct and on the nose as “Life’s not a bitch/Life is a beautiful woman, you only call her a bitch ‘cause she won’t let you get that pussy/Maybe she didn’t feel y’all shared any similar interests/or maybe you’re just an asshole who couldn’t sweet talk a princess.” Coloured with melancholy and weariness over the burdens that life brings people, “Daylight” is foremost anchored by an eternal hope and desire to take power over one’s life. It remains one of his greatest songs.
“Flashflood” takes a look at the New York dream, which he views as a manipulative game akin to Monopoly, “Thug, vagrant, yuppie, art freak game piece all included.” In the city where dreams are made of, privileged artists who were provided the easy path in life “suck the proverbial silver spoon till their parents quit apparently/Parasol spinning casually like/I’m an artist, please don’t laugh at me.” The easy path is a theme that appears throughout the album, often juxtaposed against the hard, treacherous path that working class people are forced to trudge to get where they want to be.
The “easy way” is most interestingly explored in “No rEgrets,” a short story of a song spanning 80 years. The protagonist is Lucy, a girl who lives one singular dream and focuses on little else, affording her the privilege of never living with a regret. In three verses, she goes from a shy little girl who ignores the jeers of bullies and adults and commits her time to elaborate sidewalk chalk drawings to an aging charcoal artist who is introverted, detached from those around her save the one man she romantically involves herself with (an artist himself who doesn’t distract her from her pursuit) to an old lady with not a single regret because her life was dedicated to the only thing she wanted to do since day one. “One, two, three, that’s the speed of the need.” We might as well simplify everything down to one thing if we’re going to get anywhere. Rock presents us with a binary choice: “You can dream a little dream or you can live a little dream.” Lucy’s dying words are “Look, I’ve never had a dream in my life/Because a dream is what you wanna do but still haven’t pursued/I knew what I wanted and did it till it was done/So I’ve been the dream that I’ve wanted to be since day one!” Rock doesn’t seem to be critical nor praising of Lucy. She merely takes the only road available to salvage a reality that most people living under the ruling class face. We can have as many dreams as we want, but they will always be next to impossible to achieve unless we whittle them down as much as we can, so we might as well do that, at least. “I’d rather live it, ‘cause dreamers always chase but never get it.”
“One Brick,” featuring underground Ohio rapper Illogic, and “The Tugboat Complex pt. 3” take the class struggle dynamic and apply it to hip hop at large. While Aesop Rock is not a rapper who sells millions (especially in 2001), he is still an underground influencer, a status he shares with the countless MCs who are widely influential but continue to go unrecognized (I can’t help but think of the hilarious “Angry Rapper” skit at the beginning of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Kick In The Door,” but I digress). While these artists work hard to keep the game alive, wealthy label executives are the ones who pick and choose who gets exposed to the consumers. This is prevalent throughout the many tracks leading up to the centerpiece of the album, “9-5’ers Anthem.”
The thesis-statement of a track opens with dreamy chimes and the relatable “I’m late again,” as a sleeping Aesop wakes up to reality and a hard-hitting beat of busy bass and turntable. Possibly the most excoriating critique of American capitalism ever committed to a hip-hop beat, Aesop raps about how “an aggravated breed,” the working class, are stuck in a cycle of throwing “long Hail Mary bombs/Toward cookie-cutter Mother Natures bedazzled synthetic fabrics.” They are trapped in a cycle of producing and consuming while being forbidden from benefiting off of it. In something of a contrast to the “Life’s not a bitch” lyric off of “Daylight,” Rock gives an incensed observation of life’s treatment of people who have done nothing to merit their misfortune. “Life treats the peasants like they tried to fuck his woman while he slept inside/Well they’re merely chasing perfectionist emblems.” Perhaps he understands that life is also the victim here, and the blame really falls on those who are hellbent on controlling it, and in that way becoming it. He focuses just enough indignation on the aggrandizers, and the conformity they inspire in the powerless; “I’ll take my seat atop the Brooklyn Bridge/With a Coke and a bag of chips/To watch a thousand lemings plummet just because/The first one slipped.” In a time where people have shown they are more than willing to march to the death being led by an opportunistic leader, be that Trump, Musk, or Bezos, this lyric seems all the more relevant.
Labor Days is a genre defining work that may have gone under the radar for a lot of listeners, but has nonetheless inspired so many artists with its encyclopedic rhymes and top-notch alt-rap production. More than that, it is a masterpiece of working class frustrations, concentrating on the slog that is life within the underclass, be it as an artist or an office drone. It is the story of an American music genre as much as it is a story of an American people and their struggle against a machine that too often seems more hellbent on crushing them than helping them. Rap has lifted some individuals out of poverty and allowed dreams to flourish. For Aesop Rock though, this hip-hop dream, like the American Dream, is elusive and next to impossible for most of the people working just as hard for their dreams, and in stark contrast to the limos and penthouses, it provides the world of hip-hop with a dose of sobering reality.