Your new best friends
Do you ever have this problem where you want to listen to music, but you actually don’t want to listen to music, you just want to hear people say words arranged in a really provoking and emotionally moving way and then set to music? Yeah, me too.
Lucky for us, folk singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson and rapper Aesop Rock have teamed-up to create The Uncluded, an eclectic blend of their two lyric-based genres specially designed to blow your ear holes and your heart wide open. On their debut album Hokey Fright, the two write/sing/rap about childhood, death and grief, organ donation, teenage masturbation, plane crashes and sandwiches.
While rap and folk may sound like a strange combo, the two styles work well together. Both genres focus primarily on lyrics, with only basic chords or beats to backup the words—and Dawson & Aesop are both masters of their form. In The Uncluded, their separate lyrical styles contrast and heighten each other as the songs alternate between their verses. Dawson’s child-like voice delivers prosaic lyrics that speak with a powerful simplicity to deep emotions. Aesop’s raps are pure poetry, often deliciously cryptic, taking multiple listens to unpack. The contrast hits especially hard in songs like “Earthquake”, when they follow Dawson’s chorus:
[…] ‘cause his mother died the other day.
He’s only three years old.
Her body’s gone, but her soul is here to stay.
See the little birdy, watch him grow.
October ended with a single feather funneling its way
to muddy earth in front of funny sparrow copycatting.
Eventually it would select and circle one as if to pause
and crown the victim of a loss I wasn’t comprehending.
What makes them so strangely cohesive is that both artists seem to be talking directly to you, never shying away from the darker topics. Dawson’s signature plucky guitar, recorder and xylophone elements, as well as both of their over-enunciated vocal styles draw attention to their lyrics, making the emotional depth almost shocking and all the more powerful.
The whole album has a distinct agenda that you don’t see often in writing—transparency. Hokey Fright intentionally forsakes recording quality for a lo-fi aesthetic, leaving only expression and emotional emphasis in its wake. In “Scissorhands”, the two write candidly about the ability of the past to hold people back, trapped in memories.
The song centres around Aesop rapping about being beaten by his father as a child, as well as the difficulty of trying to express that now: “images I don’t associate with my awareness anymore / but I’ve recently been daring to explore / instead of bury […] He’s cutting the tripwire. He’s opened a window.” The songs become a very personal act of storytelling, an attempt to acknowledge, express, and let go.
The value of these songs goes beyond the pleasures of music and catharsis—there’s an attempt to reach out, to relate and connect with listeners. Dawson speaks to this in “Teleprompters”: “I preach self-love. I know it’s true. / It’s easier to say than do. / I sing these messages to you, / but now I need to hear them too.”
Dawson sings often about her struggles with insecurity and depression in her solo work—a theme Aesop then picks up in the verses of this song. He tells stories of his former introversion as a teen, avoiding taking artistic risks for fear of failing: “I’d like to say it’s ‘cause I was a rebel. / Truthfully, it’s easier to say ‘oh, hell’ instead of ‘hello’.” They each come at the issue of insecurity in artistic expression with their distinct styles, but both in a relatable manner. They are truly making art for themselves and this fearless honesty in their writing is exactly what makes it so accessible.
In the ‘high art’ literary community, we shy away from this openness far too often. ‘Emotion’ and ‘sentimentality’ have become dirty words and we forget that, when used skillfully, they can lead to powerful writing. Lyrics can be written much more plainly than poetry (or other literature) and the music will support them, but The Uncluded’s lyrics remind us just how valuable earnestness can be.
Take Dawson’s verse in “Organs”, a song on the importance of organ donation: “Jen stood at the finish line / and waited for Dylan to cross. / Then she rested her head on the young boy’s chest / that held the heart of the little girl she’d lost.” On its own, the lyrics are ‘sentimental’, but taken with their straightforward message in the chorus (“It’s important to give away your pieces / in the details surrounding your death. / There will always be a need for the pieces you are made of. / You may one day need a few pieces yourself.”), it becomes beautifully illustrative.
For me as a poet, The Uncluded have been a refreshing reminder of the value of saying what needs to be said, however it needs to get said. As Dawson writes in “Bats”: “I’m not ashamed of all the different parts of me / and I like cross-pollinating the communities”. Powerful writing and art can mean so much to people, and too often we see the writers that we admire critically being separate from those that affect us emotionally.
Dawson dares her listeners to make the band “a permanent fixture on the self-help shelf of your record collection” (“Tits Up”). Don’t be afraid to inspire with your writing. I know many of us feel small in a big world of artists who all have something to say, but dare to be emotional and earnest and goofy and sentimental (and good), and you might actually affect someone.
Jessica Bebenek is a Toronto poet and writer with work appearing/forthcoming in The Rusty Toque, [PANK], Steel Bananas, The Flying Walrus, and Uncharted Sounds magazines. She is the founder of the micro-press Loose Ends Press and published her first chapbook, I, Family, this past spring. She lives downtown with two pet rats and a prose writer. www.JessicaBebenek.com