Like anyone, artists go through dark times, times when everything seems against you, which for Aesop Rock meant the death of a friend, the end of a marriage, and his longtime label, Def Jux, going "on hiatus" while label boss El-P figured things out. That's three fastball strikes and one underground abstract rapper spending five years in the dugout feeling alone, depressed, and betrayed by his own karma, but Aesop is no ordinary hip-hopper, and Skelethon is no ordinary recovery album. Lead single "Zero Dark Thirty" is all the unexpected dark chaos of life told in stream of consciousness, and then balled into a nutshell, seeking medicine and then escaping your ills hobo style ("Lanacane, band aids, mandrake root/Bindle on a broomstick, pancaked makeup and shoes") while watching the new underground party from afar ("Choke-lore writers over boosted drums") as the Def Jux posse stalls and/or waits ("In the terrifying face of a future tongue/Down from a huntable surplus to one"), or something like that. It's hard to nail because Rock's love-him-or-just-don't-get-him style is William S. Burroughs' cut-up technique with some slang added along with plenty of karate chops, so everything is open to interpretation, or it's grating and smugly obscure when approached by detractors. Still, this hard nut to crack has never been more attractive than on "ZZZ Top," a weird slice of nostalgia that looks back at three ghost kid rebels who carved their respective "Z" antiheroes in a wood desk, one scrawling "ZoSo" for Led Zeppelin, one carving "Zulu" for Afrika Bambaataa, and one carving "Zeros" for some long-lost punk rock. Referencing a fourth, Texan set of rebels in the title makes it all the more fun to decipher. As other problems are solved in these lyrical thrill rides with Aesop's chaotic, drum-driven production underneath -- along with more hooks than usual and some odd, awesome guest shots from Rob Sonic and Kimya Dawson shaking things up -- the overall message seems to be that we've all felt this isolated, off, and alone in our own ways, and you can add a little "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" to boot. Aesop sounds stronger and sure after taking this journey, making Skelethon his most rewarding effort to date. ~ David Jeffries