Daniel Randall reviews Aesop Rock's The Impossible Kid (2016, Rhymesayers Entertainment)
It's difficult to know how to describe Aesop Rock to someone unfamiliar with his work. There are so few other rappers, or writer-artists in any form or genre, who are anything like him that it's difficult to think of an adequate frame of reference. Let's try this: the barrage of imagery and refracted cultural references that characterise his current lyrical register is redolent of Thomas Pynchon, and his increasingly narrative and character-driven lyrical approach echoes Slick Rick, a rapper he has previously cited as a key influence.
Such "think X meets Y" formulas are probably not helpful. And in fact, neither comparison really does him justice, nor gives a sense of the originality of his work. In terms of his use of language, he is in a class of his own. A study by data analyst Matt Daniels, which analysed the unique word-use of dozens of rappers, found that Aesop Rock had the largest vocabulary in hip-hop, by some stretch.
His writing is occasionally criticised for being inaccessibly dense. His tracks certainly bear repeat listening, and undoubtedly you'll catch a new image, or metaphor, or technically impressive rhyme scheme each time, but the notion that his lyrics are impenetrable simply doesn't bear up if you're prepared to listen to a song more than once.
Indeed, his latest album, The Impossible Kid, written and recorded in seclusion in a barn in California, finds him, perhaps surprisingly given that provenance, in one of his most "accessible", open, and autobiographical moods to date.
He has clearly made an effort to keep the work somewhat grounded, rather than hyper-abstract, and, often, more than a little fun. As he put it in an interview with Thrasher magazine: "You can rap clever stuff all day and get away with it but I’m going for something more personal these days. I wrote raps for years where I was only trying to be the illest MC and it was all so serious. I imagine I came off like a guy who wasn’t that fun to be around."
The album picks up almost exactly where the latter half of 2012's Skelethon left off; the genuinely funny, and rather heartwarming, 'Grace', and the album's brutally self-reflexive closer 'Gopher Guts', set the tone for The Impossible Kid, which includes simultaneously comedic and poignant tales of childhood capers involving his brothers ('Blood Sandwich'); coming-to-terms-with-ageing struggles ('Lotta Years'); and songs that see Aesop Rock grappling with his own artistry ('Rings', which deals with his regrets at having abandoned his training and potential career as a painter and visual artist, and 'Lazy Eye', perhaps the album's standout track, which recounts a conversation with rap legend Chuck D of Public Enemy in which Chuck reminds Aesop of the importance of diversity within an artist's oeuvre).
When I curated "Songs of Liberty and Rebellion", a column showcasing radical lyrics and poetry in Solidarity between 2010 and 2013, I featured Aesop Rock's '9-5ers Anthem', a searing critique of the way wage labour distorts and shackles the human spirit from his 2001 album Labor Days (which many, although not this reviewer, consider his magnum opus). That kind of political tone is largely absent from The Impossible Kid; where previous albums have faced outwards, to the urban spaces around the writer and the conflicts, interactions, and dynamics that animated them, The Impossible Kid peers inwards, but in a way that avoids self-indulgence and rather seeks to amplify what is human and connected in the writer's experience, even in his most isolated, introverted moments.
There is a frequently wry, self-deprecating tone to much of the writing on The Impossible Kid: "I bet you clone your pets and ride a hover board to work // I used a folding map to find the juice place in the first", Aesop Rock, now 39, raps about a twenty-something server in a juice bar on 'Lotta Years'. Despite this tonal shift, the writing retains all of the figurative expansiveness and lyrical complexity for which he is known and revered.
The death of close friend and artistic associate Camu Tao in 2008 continues to cast a shadow over Aesop Rock's work; it is mentioned to heart-wrenching effect on 'Get Out The Car', and elsewhere. The bluntness with which Aesop Rock raps about his own mental health before and since that event is jarring at times, but often all the more affecting for that. On 'Shrunk', he relates his experiences of being in therapy: "You pack up all your manias, sitting in the waiting room // You're dreaming of Arcadia, you're feeling like a baby tooth // Awaiting panacea, channeling your inner Beowulf // In Purgatory, just before you pay up to filet yourself..."
The patterns in those four bars, each one containing multisyllabic internal rhymes as well as rhymes that hit percussively at each bar's end, could go toe-to-toe with the schemes of any of hip-hop's most famously technical artists, and express a stream of metaphysical and poetic imagery, drawing on a range of cultural references, that's almost impossible to take in the first time around.
That's four lines, from one track.
The album has 15 tracks.
This is Aesop Rock's seventh solo album.
Whatever one's subjective opinion of Aesop Rock's music, and indeed whether or not one enjoys rap music as a genre, the sheer depth and bread of his body of work has to be admired by anyone who appreciates songwriting as an art form.
If the album has a thematic through line, it's perhaps a contemplation of what it means to "be yourself": "Act natural // Whatever that means for you", as the chorus on 'Lazy Eye' puts it. But Aesop Rock "acting natural", and his evolution to a more essential, personal register has nothing in common with the meaningless and oft-repeated exhortation that rappers should "keep it real" (which invariably leads to a conservative narrowing down of both form and content, a tendency I critiqued in a 2012 article that used Aesop Rock's 'Save Yourself' as its title and extensively referenced his work). The occasionally dizzying, almost surrealist, turns of phrase and lyrical tangents that have characterised his work since his 1997 debut Music for Earthworms are still there, but on The Impossible Kid are given a thematic focus that helps listeners to more easily connect with them, rather than being overwhelmed by them.
Despite the album's frequent humour, there is a profound, almost chilling darkness to many songs: 'Water Tower', recalling 2002's '1 of 4' from the Daylight EP, recounts experiences of mental breakdowns and suicide attempts, ending on the Beckettian line, "Crawls out a clawed coffin to huff and puff // Somewhere in between the dust and dust". But there's plenty of light to juxtapose with it, too; 'Kirby', for example, is a playful homage to his cat.
Aesop Rock's style is changing, evolving, and growing as he ages. In interviews, he has spoken about his conscious effort to pare down the lyrical acrobatics of his earlier work and focus on developing as a writer rather than a technically-impressive emcee: "I’m 39 years old now. The idea of trying to impress someone with my physical abilities with lyrics has come and gone. I’m not trying to be the lyrical miracle anymore, I just want to be a better writer. Trying to be more concise and pulling out only what I need from the word soup. Trimming the fat while still hopefully zooming in on the parts that are cool."
Approaching his 40th birthday, The Impossible Kid is perhaps his most pensive, introspective, and reflective album to date. He has much to reflect on, both personally and artistically. He has been many things in a career that has now extended to 19 years and spanned three decades: underground art-rap pioneer; standard-bearer, along with label mates El-P and Cannibal Ox, for the brooding, intense, urban-claustrophobia-inducing post-9/11 New York indie rap that made his former label Def Jux famous; purveyor of a swaggering, alt-street persona on 2003's Bazooka Tooth and as part of defunct supergroup Weathermen; and experimental collaborator in joint projects with Slug and Murs (Felt 3), Rob Sonic (Hail Mary Mallon), Kimya Dawson (The Uncluded), Homeboy Sandman (Lice), and others. Throughout all of those modes, registers, and voices, Aesop Rock's work has been characterised by a poetic dexterity and lyrical breadth hardly paralleled by any other contemporary songwriter.
The Impossible Kid is a superb addition to an almost peerless discography. As he contemplates a return to his native New York, which he left for the west coast in 2005 ("New York in the rear view, then peel // Out, til he found New York in the windshield", as he raps on 'Molecules', The Impossible Kid's closing track), there is every reason to believe Aesop Rock's artistic development and evolution will continue.
His music is not to everyone's tastes, but if you care to hear language used creatively, to speak to and express something essential in the human experience of the writer to which the listener or reader can connect (surely the ultimate purpose of poetry, if it has one) you should listen to at least one of his albums, at least twice. The Impossible Kid is a perfect place to start.