Today I'll be analyzing the song 1+1=13 by Aesop Rock.
Sometimes rap can feel squeezed for topics, the only space for artistry being how cleverly the rapper can express the same repetitive claims: e.g. that they are tough, that fame is alienating, that they get girls. By contrast, as my friend likes to point out, Aes songs are always about something. There's always a theme to hang your hat on. Here the theme is superstition.
I see this one as an energetic lament with a note of action at the end.
Scum of the earthly, I plug into that one plus one equals 13 Summer of love, sleep under a murder of crows They sorta circle his lawn, pokin' at serpents and skulls Workin' a curious beak, he's seekin' mercy on his virtuous bones We see this ain't the type of jury that votes
"One plus one equals 13" is about taking a few innocuous steps into wild and disproportionate misfortune. It was supposed to be 2 — what happened!? Oh god. Crows are bad luck, an omen of death, especially when a whole flock of them arrives at the main character's house. (Aesop often talks about himself in the third person, so this could well be him, but I'll just say "main character" here to maintain the separation.) He wants some recognition of his virtue, some human procedure to be followed, but the crows "aren't the type of jury that votes" — his fate will not be determined by a fair and transparent process.
I know you tryin' to find a little bit of math in your misfortune Miss him with the supernatural, there has to be some order There has to be some more to hoarding rabbits feet and wishbones Horseshoes over door-frames, Feng Shui, fishbowls
The failed impulse to "find a little bit of math in your misfortune" is like the title of the song — 1+1=13 represents trying to do just that and failing. You can't make the math make any sense; even when you do something basic it screws you over. The main character rejects the supernatural, but stocks up on good-luck charms anyway as an attempt to impose some order on the world.
I like the idea that good-luck charms, like math, are just another human attempt to find some order in the chaos.
Plant life dies when I bop through the glade Docs lose hope, popes burst into flames, I'm the worst Crashed out crown made of black clouds Troll-face roll snake eyes from a glass house Passionately waiting in a sea of cursed funk I'm a vacationing Brady with a tiki, surf's up
Focus more clearly on Aes himself now. This verse is about his absurdly bad luck. "Crashed out crown made of black clouds" is like the image of Charlie Brown with a personal raincloud over his head, but a whole crown of them and the clouds are there to stay, have come to rest. Rolling snake eyes in many dice games is bad luck. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. I don't know what "passionately waiting in a sea of cursed funk" means. The "vacationing Brady" line is a reference to this Brady Bunch episode where a character finds a cursed tiki idol and crashes during a surfing competition.
[Chorus] If anybody out there, show me a sign Leaders of the free world blowin' on dice We load our bows, we close our eyes
We move from the personal to the general. Blowing on your dice is an "I need a good roll" maneuver someone might do if they've made a big bet in a casino. The idea of the heads of NATO "blowing on dice" is a little disturbing for the same reason that a NASA engineer wearing their lucky socks on launch day is a little disturbing — it's an admission that much is up to chance. We're not really able to control the effects of our actions. We close our eyes while firing.
My bed got two wrong sides and a yawning Dreamcatcher full of me falling, it's haunting No causality, back the bad juju It's active irrationality, brash and a tad cuckoo, alas A little superstition stupefy the hoard Treating reasonable norms like warriors to unhorse There is no amount of tourmalated quartz That would counter the disturbance in the force he endures
He has dreams where he's falling over and over again, so many times his dreamcatcher is full of them. This verse sees Aes take a critical look at his superstitions, of which the dreamcatcher is an example. He reflects on how subtly daring it is for him to fly in the face of "rationality" by using a good-luck charm, and how it means he might be a bit crazy. Alas. Well, it's harmless, but wait is it? Aren't crystal healing, dreamcatchers, etc. actually destructive, viewing e.g. modern medicine ("reasonable norms") as "The Man" and trying to tear them down, making a combat out of a peace? Or don't they prevent us from solving the real problems ("stupefy the hoard")?
In any case, the crystal healing ("tormulated quartz") is of laughably low caliber relative to Aes's issues.
Flip a quarter ten times, count ten times tails The four leaves fail, live from the slime trail Where luck is a white whale, love is a work of fiction Amity is a service sold outside his jurisdiction Sure His mercy is a myth in all the worlds there ever were It send a curious insurgent to an early sepulcher And that sucks, foxhole crashed My two lucky socks don't match My Hanzo's scratched
The existentialist confusion one feels upon getting ten tails in a row. A four-leaf clover doesn't work. Luck is as impossible to catch as the whale from Moby Dick, love is a story people made up like Moby Dick, and friendship is sold out in all the realms that are his. There are many worlds, and God may exist in some of them, but in none of them does he have what we would call 'mercy.' The pursuit of God's mercy drives hopefuls to become martyrs, and that's truly terrible. The centre cannot hold. Even his lucky socks don't match! The Hanzo is the weapon with which the protagonist from Kill Bill embarks on her journey of revenge.
The last verse being darker than the previous one, this time around the chorus is more of a plea for help.
Ayy, when you wish upon a barn star Deliver us from "nyuck, nyuck" and "hardy-har-har" Deliver shady Lady Luck from the dark arts She turn a basic straight shooter to a card shark, quick I'm writing from the plight of the godless Where pagans swap piety for shinier objects And pretend to be a perfect pile of science and logic Though it hasn't got us any less divided and conquered, look
Continuing the plea. This verse begins with "Ayy", standing on its own, trying to get your attention. Aes is making a request. If your wishes work, use them to save us from this chaos, deliver us from our own lame laughter at our misfortune, and deliver us from the need to pile on charms, tricks, and small edges (become a "card shark") in order to win. Aes identifies himself with the "pagans", who have strayed from the faith and converted to the worship of science and rationality because it seems like a better bet. But it's not — the "pagans" have been assimilated, divided, and still feel "conquered" by the world.
I'm not totally sure about this reading of 'Deliver us from "nyuck, nyuck" and "hardy-har-har".' I can't find a reading that totally works for this line. Regardless, on a purely connotative level I love the revulsion I immediately have towards "nyuck, nyuck" and the sense of weariness as Aes asks to be delivered from them.
The rock shock still knock on wood No shame, still aim for the top of the food...chain My lucky sevens only ever make it up to six Every three tries, Satan kind of wins Untied shoes alive on a wild goose The winter is unrelenting, the kindling is fireproof Got a face for radio, break a mirror every morn' Turn seven years into seven more, it's yours
Lucky charms survive, people still knock on wood — Aesop Rock knows you do, and wants you not to feel ashamed. (Not sure what "rock shock" is, or about the reference to the food chain.) More references to bad luck: instead of getting to "lucky seven", he only gets sixes, and three of those spell 666, the number of the Beast. (Not sure what about the shoes + goose — wild goose chase?) It's cold and the fire won't start. "A face for radio" is a polite way of describing ugliness; his face is so ugly it breaks a mirror every morning and puts another curse of seven years bad luck on top of his existing one.
"It's yours" is a beautiful mystery to me here. Possibly Aes is conjuring up this image of bad luck but bequeathing it to you, indicating that it belongs to you, in contrast to earlier in the track when he is just complaining about his own. The line is powerfully enunciated. On a connotative level there is a sense that something is being laid upon us, something important has been given to us, in line with the direct address of this whole stanza.