About Austin:

Former IT guy turned spec-fic writer and librarian, Austin Gragg lives in Independence, Missouri.

When he isn't writing, reading, or teaching digital literacy classes, he can be found playing Dungeons & Dragons with his partner, friends, and a pride of small domestic lions.

Break It Down: "Sword Box," by Malibu Ken

Break It Down: "Sword Box," by Malibu Ken

Alright, welcome to a new thing I’m going to try out here on the blog. I LOVE music. Who doesn’t right? Weirdos, that’s who. If you’re one of those weirdos, that’s fine. We like weirdos — you just might not like these “Break It Down” posts.

So what is this? We’re gonna take a song I’m totally digging at the moment and break down the lyrics.

A note on my interpretations:

I will only be using the song itself. No outside sources of interpretation. Given that, my interpretations are likely to differ from yours or others, and maybe even be totally ‘wrong’ in comparison to the artist’s comments on the piece. Don’t worry about it. We’re just having fun here and seeing what we can pull out of the art.

Lyrics will be below with my comments offset to the right in bold. You can listen to the song below as well!

Secret time: I picked this song not only because I love it, but because I used to do magic when I was younger (semi-pro gigs even!) and I couldn’t resist talking about the magic trick metaphors here.

“Sword Box,” by Malibu Ken (Aesop Rock [one of my favorite artists] and Tobacco)

About the artist (directly from Spotify page): Brainy wordsmith Aesop Rock and Black Moth Super Rainbow mastermind Tobacco teamed up to form the abstract hip-hop duo Malibu Ken. Matching Rock's surrealist wordplay with Tobacco's spacy synth-funk production, the duo's debut, also titled Malibu Ken, was issued in early 2019.


Sword Box - by Malibu Ken

What kind of bastion of trust

Hit the stage with a straight face and jacket full of doves?

Aesop’s asking a rhetorical question.

NO ONE trusts a magician, except to entertain us.

Our subject here is the magician and what he stands for —

what he’s doing to his audience — us.

Where daisy-chained hankies vanish into plastic thumbs

Thumb Tips, are a plastic fake thumb a magician

wears on their thumb in order to help them vanish small objects.

This is the first reference to simple, often publicly known magic secrets.

We see through the song that the tricks being used are

ones we know the secret to, but the audience continues

to follow along with the magician’s show, begging for more.

As we’ll see here shortly, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

It was classic misdirection, soulless magic to the young

HOLY HELL — I fucking love this line.

“Soulless magic to the young” SOULLESS is an

intentional homophone to our ears. Yes, Aesop means

the magic is soulless — evil — without regard for

the audience’s wellbeing, but when this line is

delivered, it sounds like “Sold as magic to the young.”

This gives the line two clear and distinct meanings.

The magic is not only without soul, but it’s misdirection

being sold as something fantastic and magical to

those who are young — ignorant — and don’t know better.

Aesop pulls this trick often.

So, who’s the magician here? What’s their aim?

The masters of deception

The full force quart of volunteer

Pull a quarter out his ear

In a recession

Here we get our audience and an indication as

to who this magician is. The audience is the public,

and the magician is someone who can pull a

quarter out of the ear of that audience in

a recession — a master of deception. He’s already got

the money, and is focused on keep the public

enamored with the trick. Are they thinking about

where the quarter came from? In a magic trick, the

magician usually has the coin already, but as we get to

later lines, we’ll start to question where that money

came from, as the purpose of the tricks — the deception

and entertainment of an ignorant public — comes into full view.

Pull a rabbit from a Stetson as a rapper

Though it's basically the same exact profession

Stetsons are a type of gentlemen’s hats — cowboy style

— southern — south — republican. Forgive my

huge word association jumps here, but that’s how

this reads to me, and seems to fall into line

with most of Aesop’s usual messaging. He’s telling us

the magician aweing the crowd with his cash tricks is

the wealthy, the upper class — those in power. And, he

likens the tricks they’re pulling on the public to

the way rappers entertain their audiences.

If all a rapper or artist is peddling is tricks and

thrills about cash and fantasies, how are they

any better than the wealthy magician distracting

his audience while raking in their cash?

Watch, con artists give a fuck who the mark is

Where the gorgeous old New Yorkers stood up eyeing Diane Arbus

Every two lines is a MASSIVE amount of

information to break down. That’s Aesop.

Aesop’s telling us the con artists don’t give a

fuck who you are. You’re a target.

The “gorgeous old New Yorkers” are the wealthy,

maybe part of the audience, maybe part of the problem.

Maybe both. They “stood up watching Diane Arbus.”

Arbus was a photographer (born 1923, died 1971)

who became famous for her work in photographing

what society then considered freaks:

the disabled, homosexuals, trans people,

and the mentally handicapped. For me, this sounds a lot

like the far-right distracting the public with gender issues.

Here, Aesop positions the “gorgeous New Yorkers”

as gawking at the work of Diane Arbus —

staring at what they consider freaks — they’re enamored with the freaks

and that’s just the way the magician wants it.

Be distracted, so he can do his work.

This line is also establishing a setting for the previous line —

giving us a time and space for these con artists work in this narrative.

No outstanding warrants, nothing up his sleeve

I need you feeling weak and needing something to believe

There’s a lot in here, so let me just paint the picture I see:

An arrest is being made/blame is being placed on

someone/a group who is innocent, he’s got nothing to hide,

but blame — a framing still needs to happen.

This sounds an awful lot like a cop planting drugs or

the wealthy blaming the poor for society’s misfortunes.

I need you feeling freakish

That's when I really flourish

Those in power thrive when we’re jittery — nervous.

It’s much easier to plant blame on a victim or a group in those circumstances.

I wake up in a sword box

I brush my teeth with bullets

He’s the magician, but something evil —

waking up in his sword box stage prop like a

vampire wakes in his coffin. Brushing teeth with

bullets refers to the bullet catch trick where a

magician catches a fired bullet in his mouth.

But here, Aesop might be making another allusion

to the nature of the power magician he’s talking about —

this powerful being of deception brushes his teeth with bullets.

Brushing teeth is something we do daily.

So, dealing with tools of war as casually as brushing

teeth is something our deceiver does.

Who in society brushed their teeth with bullets?

Our leaders. Governments — those in power.

And they do so while needing to keep us nervous,

so they can flourish —



a flourish being a cool visual trick usually

done with cards in order to not trick the audience,

but to awe them, (fanning cards, spinning them,

flipping them and throwing them).

Underneath some cosmic retrograde where patsies get their signals flipped

Hold on to your crystal pouch

Step up to the thimble rig

“Underneath some cosmic” = underneath this ‘magical’ or ‘all-encompassing’

“Retrograde” = used as a noun, means a degenerate person.

“Pasties” = a person easily deceived.

So hold on to your money and step up to the

“thimble rig” = the table where the shell game is played.

And for my next trick

I'll make a dollar bill climb up out your wallet

Disappear and reappear inside my pocket

Me taking your money while deceiving you is actually a great trick!

I never really do these things twice

But if y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

I love this nod to magicians.

On key rule of magic is to NEVER repeat a trick.

They just might figure it out if you do.

But here, the magician — the powerful and deceitful vampire

is willing to repeat the trick if you ask nicely —

gaslighting you into wanting it, again and again.

He’s not worried we’ll figure it out, because we’re the

ignorant freaks who exist to serve as his audience and nothing more.

It’s a vicious cycle, so long as the magician keeps us entertained. In a lot of ways, this message is similar to ‘the emperor's games’ to distract the people.

It goes scarves into wands

Into flowers over common sense

I'm all heart, rib cage housing a Svengali deck

The first two lines here illustrate the cycle, trick after trick

as the magician tells us he’s “all heart,” but in reality,

his heart is a trick itself, a rigged deck designed to

force the same card on the spectator every time.

Pick a card, tricky

Turn a vic into a bobblehead

Turn the victim into a ‘yes’ bobbing statue.

Absconders and their clingers-on

Klingons into Romulans

Another abhorrent description of an audience

the magician has little regard for.

Saw myself in pieces for purveyors of the strange

Put the pieces back together though I'm never quite the same

The magician relies on the audience wanting to

see the bizarre, and he’ll destroy himself and put

himself back together as many times as it takes

to keep up the act. Sounds like a Mitch McConnell-type to me.

I have values — except for when it benefits me to throw

them all out the window to keep up the power-grab game.

Now, I’m going to do a little more word association and

play my interpretations light in this last part.

It’s a common theme for Aesop songs to get denser as they go on.

Every two or three words becoming something

you could have a whole discussion on.

We undermine the infantry where trickery let range

We lessen the power of the people fighting for

good when we let trickery run wild.

From weighted dice to blowup dolls up in the carpool lane

From deceptions actually trying to decieve

to ridiculous deceptions.

I'm charcoal with the art school lames

I'm skateboarding with heshers

Seen scepters shaped like feather pens and '57 Fenders

Carving knives and camera parts and canvas over stretchers

The magician is everywhere

so close to the groups it wants to deceive

that he is like the tools they employ daily.

And whatever make the project in the cellar go excelsior

At the way my older bones that magically predict the weather

He like his eye on loot with pinch of pepper

The nerd rage scurry out a collapsible bird cage

Ace in the palm at the workplace, jerkface


My best try here is that the deceptions

have gotten so close and integrated into everything

even the arts, that it’s hard to escape the deception

of the magician at all.

There’s a lot more here, line-by-line, but the

last line drives the point home with,

“Ace in the palm of the workplace, jerkface”

And for my next trick

I'll make a dollar bill climb up out your wallet

Disappear and reappear inside my pocket

I never really do these things twice

But if y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

If y'all ask nice I just might

The rest of the song concludes with the same core premise we found in the middle section — the heart of the piece. Aesop wants us to see our deceivers and take notice of their action and methods. There’s so much here I had to skip for the sake of time, but there’s no doubt Aesop is one of the greatest wordsmiths alive today. His lyrics are so compressed and focused they’re bursting at the seams with message and meaning.

Interrogation on Starship Death

Interrogation on Starship Death

Immanent Self-Destruction: Analyzing “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick

Immanent Self-Destruction: Analyzing “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick