Aesop Rock, one of the underground’s sharpest MCs, has decreed that none shall pass.

None shall pass him in ability, that is, and none shall be able to pass up his third album for the N.Y.-based label Definitive Jux. Considering his most recent project was completely devoid of all lyrics – the 45-minute instrumental “All Day,” which Nike commissioned for its Original Run series – the wordplay on his latest is biting and incisive.

He might just be as good as he thinks he is. Throughout None Shall Pass, from the loopy, liquid “Catacomb Kids” to the spooky stomp of “Citronella,” Aesop seems fully aware of his abilities. He is endearingly verbose, but never boring. With each rhyme and stutter, he dares the world to challenge him with his forceful, bantering lyrics delivered at top speed.

Aesop has a long working relationship with producer Blockhead, who crafted half of the songs on None Shall Pass. In addition to Blockhead, Def Jux whiz El-P appears on several tracks and produced the dark, undulating “Gun for the Whole Family.” As far as guest artists go, unlike so many current hip-hop collaborators, Aesop knows how to pick them. While formidable MCs like El-P and Cage, as well as John Darnielle of indie rockers The Mountain Goats (!), all make appearances on the album, none outshine Aesop himself, and all complement his distinctive flow and razor-like elocution.

Then again, maybe Aesop doesn’t live up to his word or words. Many of the cuts on None Shall Pass sound alike – all are slick and sinister, all showcase Aesop’s knack for rhymes and his liquid-gravel voice courses like an undercurrent through even the most forgettable of tracks. But none of the songs leap out of the speakers. Instead they simmer and bubble in some shadowy corner. None Shall Pass works better as an album than on a song-to-song basis, and though listeners would be hard-pressed to name specific cuts that aren’t up to par, they’d have just as much trouble naming any of the songs at all.

A few of the tracks, like “Bring Back Pluto” (we hear you, man) or “The Harbor Is Yours,” tell stories. But the problem with some of Aesop’s more narrative jaunts is that in his desire to fit in string after string of words, he retreats into his own head when it comes to telling coherent tales. Just try to decipher a few seconds from “Citronella” without making your head spin: “Cutters of the pie throw your summers in the sky / Collar pop jolly roger / Die motherfucker die / Apache on the ship shape / And Bristol fashion snuck a jammy through the red tape.”

The album is as dark as it is wordy, and the outlook prophesied on it is equally gloomy. But is it really unthinkable that it should match its social context? In the end, None Shall Pass plays more like a textbook than a graphic novel: Aesop’s work is technically proficient – brilliant, even – but what keeps the music from achieving greatness is the fact that it’s not as entertaining, as vivid or as diverse as it could be.

In what might be a revealing moment, Aesop raps, “Let’s be friends / From opposite ends / Wave to the kid / Don’t hop on the fence” on the disc’s closer, “Coffee.” The words embody the kind of restrained spirit that pervades None Shall Pass. Aesop is always ready to dazzle with his words from afar, but whether he’s able to make any sense to his listeners – whether he can create something that affects people up close – remains to be seen.

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