Perfectionist Emblems: Dreams & Reality in Aesop Rock’s Labor Days

“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.

Our Rating: 9.2/10 (Masterpiece)

Review: Honeymoon by Beach Bunny

FFO: early Best Coast, Diet Cig, surfing and crying

It may be late February, and we may be in the throes of winter (certainly here in New York, where upstate we got into the lovely sub-zero fahrenheit zone this month, fun!), but Chicago power-poppers Beach Bunny want you to feel like it’s the worst summer of your baby-adult life and you’re hitting the ice cream stand in Venice Beach for what was originally supposed to be a date, maybe getting a good bit of your vanilla soft-serve all over your face as you gaze blankly into the ocean because you forgot napkins. Then again, perhaps this summer-bummer pop serving is a timely release (they’re not an LA band, after all, so it’s not like everything has to be on script), as it dropped (intentionally?) on Valentine’s Day and could potentially fit the mood for you sad singles out there who spent the holiday sinking into the couch as you consumed cheap chocolate. That works too. Either way, Beach Bunny’s debut full-lenght, ironically dubbed Honeymoon, will hit that sweet tooth craving sugary melodies and songs of wistful heartbreak.

Forming in 2015, Beach Bunny has a genesis like many other projects by talented young songwriters these days, in the comfort of a bedroom, and perhaps in the discomfort of a broken heart, too. Lili Trifilio, a student at DePaul University at the time, solidified her project into a full-fledged rock band two years (and two EPs) later, and brought in the buzz with their 2018 EP, Prom Queen. Hitting all the right “sad-girl” notes, Trifilio’s songwriting on these early releases exhibited a sharp ear for pop melody that married the sweet and sunny with the melancholy, applying it to familiar post-Weezer power-pop dynamics. 

Soundwise, Honeymoon doesn’t stray too far from the pack. It’s simply an expanded version of what Trifilio has already established with her non-album releases. Opening with the breezy bubble-grunge of “Promises,” we find Trifilio wondering something we’ve all wondered before while in the depth of post-heartbreak: “When you’re all alone in your bedroom, do you ever think of me?” she sings in an honest alto that sounds a little bit like the singer she has perhaps drawn the most comparison to, Bethany Cosentino, while dipping ever so slightly into a subtle vibrato that sounds a little bit like a more subdued Marissa Paternoster. “Cuffing Season” follows faster punk dynamics. There’s a mindset that seems to define the romantic lives of the two generations that Trifilio straddles the line of, the self-embracing of introversion clashing with the desire for intimacy, a feeling she touches on here: “Maybe we are getting too close/Paranoid permanence is just an empty promise/Sometimes I like being on my own/I’m afraid of winding up alone.”

The highs of this brief album really hit in the middle. “April” brings in a janglier spin to Trifilio’s crying-fest. “I’m sick of counting tears, wishing you were here,” she sings over classically chipper Johnny Marr extract. It subsides with a noisy jam and is followed by the wonderful ballad “Rearview,” a quieter moment where the stripped back arrangement makes the heartbreak in Trifilio’s voice all the more noticable; there are moments you hear her voice shake, as if she’s about to cry (and kind of wants to). A quiet-to-loud outro a la grunge leads us into “Ms. California”. Trifilio dishes out all the envious angst a midwesterner might ideally have over someone from the Golden State, all through the use, ironically, of a chorus that should make any indie songwriter from Los Angeles green. It’s the kind of singalong chorus that hits all the sweet-spots for this melody-addicted reviewer, albeit couching a very common and tropey subject. Towards the second half of the album is a sprinkling of more diverse dynamics. “Colorblind” pulls a book from the Hop Along book of balancing an emo-punk flavour with a funky, almost danceable groove, and “Racetrack” keeps the mood of the music in pace with the mood of the lyrics, slowing things down and trading the four-piece rock band for a lone electric piano before the garage pop comes back twice more to close off the album.

This album is certainly nothing groundbreaking, nor even all that dynamic, but like Charly Bliss’s Guppy before it, it fulfills its promise of delivering a wonderful debut LP from an artist that had years ago announced their arrival through a string of online EPs and singles. It may lack variance specifically in lyrical subject matter, but it still speaks to very real feelings and insecurities. And as long as we have hearts for someone to break and pillows to cry in (and ice-cream to cry over), having those insecurities voiced back at us through a noisy wave of guitars and sun-kissed tunes will always be welcome.

7.1 (Stand-Out)

Release date: February 14, 2020

Label: Mom+Pop

Review: Never Not Together by Nada Surf

FFO: Superchunk, Teenage Fanclub, The Rentals

Compared to other 1990s one-hit wonders, Nada Surf’s career trajectory has been an interesting one. They came in big in the summer of 1996 with their Ric Ocasek-produced MTV hit “Popular,” an acerbic song with a big chorus that found the New York City trio (now a four-piece) raking in a good bit of money for their major-label, Elektra. The song’s success was ultimately at the expense of their sophomore album, 1998’s The Proximity Effect, which, despite having enough palatable Replacements-lite power-pop cuts in hindsight, did not contain a track that scratched Elektra’s itch for another college radio hit. The label’s nixing of the band opened the door for a few years of day jobs and, eventually, Barsuk Records, home to indie up-and-comers like Death Cab For Cutie and Rilo Kiley. Starting with 2002’s exceptional Let Go, things have been fairly consistent for the band. Their sound developed in a direction away from the caustic, feedback-drunk irony that was the calling-card of 1990s rock into sincere, lush, jangly pop music, a sound which they have more or less stuck with since.

In that regard, their latest album Never Not Together is not entirely different from anything they’ve released in the past 15 years; it is not a massive stylistic jump or sonic experiment, nor a defining opus from a band that has been at it for 25 years. Certain lyrical adjustments aside, it could have been released in the place of Let Go and fit in quite nicely in the milieu of 2002. Nada Surf’s gift has never laid in sonic excursions, but in tightening their craft as songwriters, performers of rich power-pop that matures with the band and their audience. Never Not Together triumphs in that area in spades, giving us an album that is somehow both their most compact and their most full-bodied collection of songs in a good while.

The opening track, and first single, “So Much Love,” fades in with pretty acoustic guitars and a sprinkle of piano; this sweet, delicate pop rock track is somewhat par for the course for Nada Surf at this point, and begins the album nicely with a safe air of familiarity before taking off with “Come Get Me,” a good dash of floaty jangle pop a la Jayhawks, interspersed with lines of moog synth that plays like something from Summerteeth-era Wilco. “Just Wait” finds its infectiousness in a more straightforward, hooky fashion, almost fitted perfectly for radio with its four-chord opening over swelling keyboard and strings. Despite being the most simple, straightforward track on the album, “Just Wait” also feels like the turning point on the album, as the tracks that fill the second half are filled with a wider variance in arrangement and style. “Something I Should Do” is an upbeat rocker that employs spoken word in a way that might be enough to hook those who are looking for another “Popular”; what’s missing is the caustic tone, as Matthew Caws says “And we have to hold onto that hippie point harder/Empathy is good, lack of empathy is bad,” going for the post-Elektra sincerity he has taken to. “Looking For You” opens with a children’s choir that seems to be singing about insomnia before working itself towards a fantastic build with the hopeful message that “what you’re looking for’s looking for you, too.”

The strongest moment on the album comes with “Mathilda”, a 6 minute track that is almost broken down in 3 different suites. “They used to call me Mathilda,” Caws sings over a simple folksy melody. “My mama kept my hair long. I was more pretty than handsome, and I was not very strong.” This exploration of self-hatred learned from societal standards forays from reverb-washed arpeggio to overdriven power chords before settling into a Paul Simonesque folk-pop outro movement. “There’s a special hell that we build for ourselves, and it’s handed down in homes and playgrounds,” he sings. Within most of the lyricism lies this desire to love others, a sort of humanistic vision of neighbourliness. Nada Surf have always taken a more direct approach to lyricism whether that be in the overt sarcasm of “Popular,” the vitriolic damnation of toxic masculinity in “Mothers Day,” or the wistful longing of “Inside Of Love.” Caws and company channel this more towards sharing wisdom, altruism and acceptance in these woefully, absurdly divisive times. People looking for more extended metaphors, witty wordplay or crypticism may want to wait for the next Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks album. Otherwise, the marriage of honesty and innocence is refreshing in its own way.

Seeing Nada Surf in concert these days, you’ll never see them wince when they play “Popular” the way Radiohead might when dusting off “Creep”. There is no desire from the band to divorce themselves from their novice work. But while other 90s one-hit wonders may also attempt to recreate their biggest hits, Nada Surf continues to strive to mature; not through sweeping experiments, but through small steps towards crafting perfect songs. Never Not Together has the feeling of meeting up with an old friend over coffee. There is always that familiarity that doesn’t preclude the growth from being noticed. And in a world that seems to get noisier as time goes on, that might be the kind of detoxing we’ve been looking for.

7.6 (Stand-Out)

Released: February 7, 2020

Label: Barsuk Records