Review: Aesop Rock hits hump day hard at State Theatre, St. Petersburg 

Maybe I shouldn't admit that I'm not very knowledgeable when it comes to hip hop. Maybe I also shouldn't admit that for the longest time after being introduced to Aesop Rock's music, I couldn't stand it. His vocals sounded slack-jawed and drippy-mouthed, as though he had shoved his maw full of marbles and performed with slobber running down his chin during the recording process. His lyrics, speeding by in a blur, were unintelligible. But since he's one of my boyfriend's heroes, I often heard his music whether I wanted to or not. Over time, the beats began to grow on me, most notably the ubiquitous, resounding bass. Next I came to appreciate his voice, the inflections and mastery of his flow, and finally, his words. I started listening to his albums on my own while at work, and now, when I focus, I can rap along with him, sorta. Though it's cliché, I guess you could say I've had a conversion.

So I should have been more excited for his show at the State Theatre last week. But it was a Wednesday, and even though it was hump day, the weekend seemed so far off. To make it to St. Pete in time for the show, my boyfriend and I had to leave straight from work. The long day didn't faze him, but I was tired and wanted to go home to bed.

The tickets said the show started at 7 p.m., so when we parked at a quarter after, I feared we were missing the opening act. Nope. Dark Time Sunshine didn't start until an hour later. I spent that hour standing at the foot of the stage growing more antsy and tired. Patience may be a virtue but it's not one that I possess. Finally the house lights dimmed and producer Zavala hopped behind his DJ table. He punched out the opening song on his mix pad. The audience, half-filling the theater, applauded tepidly. MC Onry Ozzborn, the second half of Dark Time Sunshine, appeared out of nowhere to a somewhat more enthused round of applause. Either everyone was tired, or they only cared to see Aesop Rock. And while the duo's sound at times mimicked the headliner's, it lacked the lyrical gymnastics Aesop Rock is so adept at and the audience was unimpressed. Or at least, I was.

Ozzborn should be commended for his efforts to energize the crowd, however, even if those efforts were only mildly successful. When he commanded us to get our hands in the air, a few fists rose and pumped lackadaisically before quickly drooping. Dispirited by mic issues that plagued his 40-minute set, Ozzborn looked as though he wanted to call it a night and go curl up in bed himself.

Half an hour later, when DJ Big Whiz, Rob Sonic and Aesop Rock took to the stage and opened with "Leisureforce," everything changed and the crowd seemed to wake up. The house, now packed, cheered. We lifted our fists with glee and bobbed, often off-tempo, to the beat. And we weren't the only ones energized. Aesop Rock (born Ian Bavitz) didn't stop bouncing, gesticulating and prowling across the stage the entire time, an amazing feat considering his rapid-fire verbosity and the breath it takes to sustain it.

The meat of the set was songs from Aesop Rock's latest album, Skelethon, with a few new tracks from the trio's side project, Hail Mary Mallon, peppered in for extra flavor. Homemade videos relating to each song were projected onto the large screen at the back of the stage. For "Fryerstarter," there were images of glistening donuts sizzling in oil and "Grace" showed the produce aisle at a grocery store, with the camera panning over bell peppers.

While Rob Sonic held his own as he took the lead on his personal songs, and DJ Big Whiz impressively built a beat from scratch during a solo performance, it was Aesop Rock's jovial crowd-interaction that made him outshine the rest of his crew. His between-song banter included jokes and stories used to introduce the upcoming tracks. During an extended break, he explained one of the games the trio played in the car to pass the long hours on the road that involved picking a letter of the alphabet and then listing three words that began with said letter. He asked the audience for letters, and Aesop, Rob and DJ Big Whiz took turns listing their words.

One of the evening's highlights came during "Racing Stripes," a song about Aes's friend, who'd give himself a strange haircut every time he felt himself stagnating and force himself to keep the haircut until he achieved something good enough to pull himself out of his funk. From a pre-compiled list of willing participants, Rob blindly chose a name and soon that audience member was sitting in a chair center-stage with a barber's cape around his neck. As Aesop and Rob rapped, Ozzborn and Zavala from Dark Time Sunshine clipped the audience member's hair into some hideous 'do that included a few zigzags, some stripes and a nice big bald patch in the back.

They ended the evening with "Big Bang" and a mash-up of "Nightlight" and "Daylight" from Aesop's earlier albums. I had hoped he would do something, anything, from Skelethon's predecessor, None Shall Pass, but he didn't — a bold move on his part, since NSP is, in my opinion, his most accessible album. But then, there's clearly no need to pander when half the audience is able to rap along with your unreleased tracks and other deep cuts.

Before leaving the stage, Aesop Rock promised that he'd be back to St. Pete. I'm excited for it already.


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