Charlie Lewis explores the comeback of Aesop Rock, the impossible kid of American hiphop.
It will have surprised no one who pays attention to such things, that a neat little infographic from polygraph.co found that Aesop Rock was not only comfortably the most verbose man within a mile of mainstream hip hop, but he actually used more unique words than Shakespeare in a like-for-like comparison. The joy of Aesop has always been his barrages of allusion, homophone and imagery in that cranky machine gun flow. At its best (the gorgeous Daylight, or the frenetic Coffee) his work carries the same frisson as Dylan or Nabakov, washing over you before your intellect can catch up, demanding and rewarding several revisits.
The other side to his hyper-literate style is the criticism that the sound and fury is just that– showboating wordplay that doesn’t signify all that much. If there’s a germ of truth to that (he extends his lead here with ‘cuneiform’, ‘neophyte’ and ‘scholomance’ – ‘schadenfreude’ and ‘moxie’ are in there too, but I’m sure he’s used those before) it’s never bugged me; if “Hey warm cider/barn full of spiders/ Orange moon/starry night/particle exciters/In a pageant rivaled only by the origin of fire/Now add an organism from alternative environs” from Rabies doesn’t break down into anything much, the pleasure of the clatter of sounds and imagery is quite enough for me.
Regardless, Aesop goes some way towards addressing this reputation on The Impossible Kid. He’s never been this direct, introspective or confessional. His youth gets a thorough looking over, from the failed suicide attempt and ‘“embarrassing ordeal involving hospitals and questions/and the kinda doctors who use words like “cognitive” and “spectrum”’ on Water Tower to the sweetly observed reflections on his older and younger brothers on Blood Sandwich. His competing need and disdain for therapy gets an airing on Shrunk (She said, “When you start getting all expressive and symbolic/ it’s impossible to actualize an honest diagnostic/ I said, “When you start getting all exact and algebraic/I’m reminded it’s a racket, not a rehabilitation).
But he’s also the most relaxed and funny he’s ever been. The wryly self-deprecating Lotta Years finds our aging MC, faced with attractive, trendy young service workers, having to confront his own ‘underwhelming hair’ and the fact that he had to use a paper map to find this juice bar in the first place. There’s a gentle self-acceptance in amongst the self-doubt – on Lazy Eye he starts getting in shape, watching less TV and concluding the answer is to “act natural/whatever that means for you.”
The beats are, as ever, serviceable rather than spectacular, all born of the same subdued, moody, pulsating palate. If this album is a musical step back from the more explosive and diverse Skelethon, it’s because the words are what bring you back.
The album’s best traits reach their peak on lead single Rings. He describes the joy of his youthful passion for visual arts (Even if it went beautifully wrong/It was tangible truth/ for a youth/who refused to belong…You can’t imagine a rush that ensue/When you get three dimensions stuffed into two) and the melancholy of letting it go (I left some years a deer in the light/ I left some will to spirit away/I let my fears materialize/I let my skills deteriorate). It’s wise and moving and sad and true. In content and execution (the speed of his rapping varies to mimic the invigoration, sloth and panic in each verse) it may be as good a song as he’s put out.
There’s a lovely moment in the film Boogie Nights. Early in the film, the protagonists still believe themselves to be pioneers in a new, soon to be legitimate art form. As they set up a shot, the cinematographer tells cheapo auteur Jack Horner the shot is being ruined by difficult shadows. The director replies ‘there are shadows in life, baby.’ On The Impossible Kid – probably Aesop’s best since Labor Day, and certainly one of the best alt hip hop albums of the year – there are scraps of biography, memory, loss and joy. And if it doesn’t always coalesce into an obvious conclusion or easy answer, it’s because neither does life.