Stream the lyrical hip-hop artist's most personal record yet. He also told us why he made it.
Photo by Ben Colen
This week will see the release of Aesop Rock's The Impossible Kid, the first solo album from the hip-hop lyricist since 2012's Skelethon. Though his seventh release overall, The Impossible Kid is the 39-year-old's most personal yet. Having spent the better part of the last two decades establishing himself as one of hip-hop's most vocab-savvy lyricists, Aesop's tendency for abstract social commentary has in many ways become synonymous with his name. Beginning with his 1997 debut, Music for Earthworms, his role as one of the New York underground hip-hop scene's most important figures at the time expanded into the wide-ranging, genre-crossing appeal that's earned Aesop his well-deserved accolades.
Even with his lyrical departure from obscure, The Impossible Kid retains Aesop's characteristic fluid delivery and cautionary tale thematics with the key difference coming by way of his lifting the veil between his own vulnerabilities and their relationship to his personal life and the art he creates. In our recent chat with him, Aesop opened up about that new sort of direction and why he doesn't feel as connected to the hip-hop scene anymore. Read the interview below and be sure to check out Noisey's exclusive album stream of The Impossible Kid, which is a full shot-by-shot recreation of The Shining and holy shit why are you still reading this.
Noisey: One of the things that stood out to me about the press release for The Impossible Kid was the fact that you’ve started drawing again. Considering that this all started while you were studying visual arts at BU in the mid-90s, is there a correlation between that return to your artistic roots and the material you put into the new record?
Aesop Rock: Oh I guess there might be—it’s weird though, I hadn’t really noticed that a lot of that kinda stuff could potentially be connected until way after the fact. Drawing and visual arts was kinda my first passion going all the way back to when I was a kid. I always felt like it was what I was supposed to do—but in reality I don’t know that I ever had the skill to make it a profession. I think knowing this would be my last record before turning 40 held some weight for me, and in both my writing and my life I have been doing some reflecting. I’ve always kept a sketchbook around, but I’ll go through long phases of not really touching it. I have more recently been trying to stay somewhat active with it to see if I could ever get that feeling back.
Is there a relationship between the visual and the verbal for you?
I think in two ways—one is that I love lyrics that are dripping with imagery and tangible references. I try to write detailed stuff that makes a listener want to stick around, similar to how the right painting might make someone stare at it for a long time. Additionally—I was always more attracted to the solitude of visual arts. I enjoyed how it was mostly about sitting down in a room and seeing what you could do—and I think that in more recent years I try to let my music take that place for me. Music has always seemed like a more social event. Obviously there is the solitude of a studio, but so much of what people think about with music is listening and even creating in a group scenario, and how groups of friends even going back to high school are divided up by what kind of music you like. There are just social stigmas attached. I think I’ve been attempting to treat my music more like I’m drawing at my home, lately.
The Impossible Kid is a very personal record, which is not a direction you’ve explored much at all in your music up to this point. What was the primary catalyst for you in finally allowing yourself to be vulnerable with your music?
Well I kinda disagree with some of the premise of the question—for me it’s always been personal and introspective, so I feel like in some ways it’s a direction I’ve been exploring from the beginning. I do think that maybe this one is less cryptic at times—and I guess that’s just how my writing has evolved. To be totally honest, I didn’t realize I was doing it. I basically just wrote what felt right, and when I played it for some folks after, a comment that I heard was that it felt a little more accessible—in that the lyrics weren’t such a puzzle this time around. I can see that now, but it wasn’t really my intention per se. In some of those moments of writing and recording, you don’t really notice how vulnerable you’re being. I just kinda plod along and make this all in a bubble. It’s really not until others point that out that I kinda face what I’ve done.
Were there challenges initially in bringing your own experiences to the forefront of the music with The Impossible Kid?
Not so much. No matter how abstract or direct I’m being, or what the subject matter, it’s all kinda rooted in the pool of experiences I’ve gathered. I think different things become important to talk about in different phases of my life, but I can’t say there is a conscious shifting of my approach. I just kinda reach for whatever is available at the time. I sometimes jot down a song idea—but when I go to actually write it, the bigger picture of how I’d make the song happen just eludes me. The lyrics just aren’t there. It’s really been about what’s ready to come out, as opposed to what I think is a good song idea.
You open up about depression on this record. What made you open up so clearly about that topic specifically with The Impossible Kid?
It’s kinda something I’ve talked about in a lot of my work—but perhaps it's been way more convoluted in the past. Again I think this is a byproduct of creating in somewhat of a bubble. The stuff I write is often what needs to come out, more so than what I want to write. I don’t even know that I’m willing to talk about it that much. [Laughs] I think when it’s a song lyric, I am in total control of what gets said and how it’s framed, and there is a little bit of safety in that. I can discuss just the parts that I’ve taken the time to craft. But I don’t have much of an interest in actually discussing much of this stuff conversationally.
In the larger spectrum of the hip-hop genre as a whole, what do you see as the reason for today’s artists being much more inclined to open up about what’s still a social stigma with depression?
I mean, rap is historically alpha male shit. So getting on the mic and discussing one’s weaknesses is not the most comfortable or even welcomed approach. That said, once someone does, you realize there are all these people out there who have maybe never had someone speak to them directly, and they’re thinking “Hey, finally someone is talking to me.” But you’re basically volunteering to be the weak person in the room—and that will never be easy. There’s also a funny side effect where all the people who rap from the point of view of being extremely secure don’t even know what to do when they hear someone expressing self-doubt. It’s legitimately weird to them. I love the playfulness and braggadocio that accompanies a ton of rap music - that’s basically what makes up the foundation for most rappers. But there is nothing “weirder” to me than someone who has never doubted themselves.
Is hip-hop still the confrontational and abrasive force it was in the mid-90s when you first started out?
I think it certainly can be. I mean every genre evolves and goes through phases over time—and there have certainly been periods in which the current sound is just not living up to the potential of the medium, for me. But there is still nothing more direct than hearing a strong rhyme delivered by a powerful voice over an infectious beat—and that remains as the foundation of the sound. Different things will resonate with different people due to generational differences and where their ear naturally leads them—but for all the changing that has happened in rap, I can usually still find something that at least references the feelings I had when first hearing rap in the 80s, and what eventually inspired me to try to write my own stuff.
Are there topics or certain themes you touched on lyrically in your early years that you’ve moved past or deliberately avoid now?
I think so. There was a time, during the None Shall Pass record where I was consciously trying to avoid saying “I” too much. I think I was sick of the narcissism in all of this, and I was making an attempt to replace it with “he” a lot of the time. I think this also helped me with the storytelling aspect of what I do—by putting it all in the third-person, it made it feel like I was telling a story about someone. I'm kinda back to "I" with this record, but I feel I am better able to apply some story-telling techniques when I need them due to that period. Another thing is, I think maybe I used to use profanity in a bit more of a shock-y way, as opposed to a strategic way. I would go over-the-top with it just to kinda wake up the listener. But that kinda feels dumb to me these days. I still curse a ton, but I think using my curses much more conversationally has helped immensely. Beyond all that—I think the braggadocios stuff has evolved. I still do it—but way more playfully than ever. I like taking the tone of bragging when I’m kinda making fun of myself. Rob Sonic and I do that a lot on the Hail Mary Mallon project—just kinda using that shit-talk-voice while knocking ourselves down a peg. There’s something funny to me about coming up with the most powerful dis lines I can, and then using them on myself. It’s way more “me” than giving a fuck about dissing other rappers.
As a musician who’s known for taking control over nearly every aspect of his music, its production, etc., does that kind of creative autonomy lend itself to success from the creative standpoint?
I’m not sure if it’s related to success or failure more often, but it certainly allows me to fully own whatever the outcome is. If I fail—I can’t blame anyone. Same with success. The older I’ve gotten, the more it’s become important to make these solo endeavors truly about seeing what I can do. In order for me to feel proud, and like the work is mine—I really need to do the work. It’s hard to say “This is an Aesop record” if I didn’t even make half the shit on there. Nowadays I like to control every aspect - and even the stuff I don’t technically do myself, I am in complete control of. I’m not saying I’ll never work with another producer or anything, but as of late, this approach is what works for me.
Is that kind of autonomy and independence something you feel is especially important in a genre established on that same sort of perspective?
I don’t know that the genre is the reason. I just think I want my work to represent me fully.
Do you see yourself just as connected to hip-hop as you were in 1997?
I am not that connected to the scene these days. But even in the days when I was a part of something that felt kinda plugged-in to the scene, I wasn’t that comfortable. I almost find the scene to be a distraction from the actual work. I would love to still find more ways to unplug from the scene—which gets tough when you sort of have a career to maintain. I would love for my existence as an artist to be completely about my art—not about my social media, or what I do vs what’s cool right now, or even whether or not I sound okay in an interview. I just wanna put my work out there, maybe explain it if I feel like it, and that’s it. But as for my own music—I feel more connected than ever, more in tune with who I am and what I bring to the table, and more understanding of my own capabilities.
Jonathan Dick is a writer and is not on Twitter, so he really is a writer.