Debut project “Malibu Ken” rejects traditional rap norms with surprising introspection

Aesop Rock (pictured above) and Tobacco have come together to form duo Malibu Ken. Their self-titled album debuted Jan. 17. (Courtesy: Alex Ran from Flickr)

Malibu Ken is a new hip-hop duo, consisting of rapper Aesop Rock and electronic musician Tobacco. In their eponymous debut album, the two work surprisingly well together. Credited as one of the most verbose MC’s of modern-day hip hop, Rock mixes clever, poetic rhymes with intentionally emotional vocals, while Tobacco perfectly complements with a wide variety of distorted beats, often changing from airy to gritty in a 10-second time span.

Though Malibu Ken is less hardcore, its sound is certainly comparable to Death Grips, matching the hip hop group’s rejection of the mainstream without sacrificing quality or likeability.

Malibu Ken strays from the mainstream in several noteworthy ways. There is little fascination with impressing strangers and more focus on forming human connections. Instead of bragging about the life they live, Malibu Ken takes a closer look at what it means to live at all.

While a vast amount of rap music braggadociously aims to impress (think Lil Pump’s song “Iced Out” with lyrics: “Iced out chain, iced out ring / Yeah I feel like Gucci Mane, diamonds Aquafina, rain”), Malibu Ken takes rap in a totally different direction. Lyrics are used to expose and examine the world, as opposed to painting an ideal picture. Society’s definition of success is not only rejected, but redefined, with a distorted, yet surprisingly clear, depiction of human life.

In the song “Dog Years,” Rock expresses his disappointment at old friends who sold out in order to make it in the music industry, rapping: “You was trying to get your own pants un-pissed / Yelling ‘fuck the rich’ / Now he down low count dough in a bubble.”

The attitude towards wealth is not the only difference between mainstream rap and the content of “Malibu Ken. Drugs are referenced within the album, but not in a familiar sense. Marijuana is often associated in rap songs with partying and good times. Plenty of well-known lyrics come to mind, such as those of the iconic “Young, Wild, & Free” where Wiz Khalifa raps “Yeah, roll one, smoke one / When you live like this you’re supposed to party / Roll one, smoke one, and we all just having fun.”

This notion of “fun” is challenged when Malibu Ken examines marijuana’s relationship to mental health, using metaphors about putting up walls to describe getting high. The chorus of “Corn Maze” goes “I keep my coat on, I got some walls up” over an intense, wavering electronic melody and distorted background vocals. The sounds are heavy, striking and short.

This sense of isolation and commentary on mental health is a key theme throughout “Malibu Ken.” Mental health is especially explored in “Suicide Big Gulp” when Rock talks about how far he’ll go to avoid communication, rapping “I’ll kick a train off a bridge, I’ll smack a plane out the sky / I’ll throw a car into the ocean, no one waving goodbye.” He considers these bad habits and raps about his attempts to stop isolating himself: “Detox, re-tox, see how he seesaws.”

While many rappers glorify themselves as larger than life, Rock’s lyrics seek to humanize the rapper as just another individual navigating life like everyone else. In “Tuesday,” Rock raps about his physical imperfections with the lines “I’m bunions and contusions, bumps, lumps and bruises / Discoloring and other things I can’t reach with a loofah.”

All in all, “Malibu Ken” carries a surprising amount of weight with its lyrics and production. Over a dreamy electronic beat, Rock raps in “Dog Years” with conviction, “We don’t know / That doesn’t prove we don’t care,” uniting the society he critiques throughout the entire album.

In many cases, the rapper is the star of the album, the idol of the listener. With “Malibu Ken,” Rock and his lyrics become a lens through which the listener can examine their own life, and hopefully realize there is always a new perspective to discover.

Ella Boyd SC ’22 is from Maine. Besides writing, she enjoys listening to music, discussing pop culture and making art.

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