Aesop Rock, veteran Rhymesayer and cool dude who lived in a barn for a year, brought us his seventh studio album The Impossible Kid on the 29th of April.
If that date sounds familiar, it’s because the 29th also happened to be the release for Drake’s Views and just under a week after Beyoncé’s release of Lemonade. Sandwiched between these two music titans, Aesop’s album appeared to fly under the popular radar. Listeners who stumbled upon the project a week or two after its drop all said the same thing, “I really like this, but why haven’t I heard of this guy before?” And that’s why I’m here to get you to stop sleeping and listen to The Impossible Kid by Aesop Rock.
An Aesop Rock album is a lot more than a collection of songs you amble through until you’re sick of them. An Aesop Rock album is a living, breathing entity. I will never understand how Aesop can load up each bar with so much meaning and word play. One of the common criticisms of Aesop’s music is that it’s too much, too overwhelming, and while that’s a fair judgement, it’s also part of the fun. He makes records that you want to really get to know: records you want to sit down with, take out to dinner, fall asleep next to, and maybe even stargaze with in the back of a pick-up truck. Certainly, that’s not a plus for everyone, but Aesop is an artist you have to take your time with. He’s not going to give you everything you’re looking for right away; he’s not that type of date. But what Aesop will give you are lines that you had no idea you needed.
His songs are densely packed with personal stories and an endearing yet awkward personality. It’s this charming, and off-kilter, nature to his music that helps make The Impossible Kid his most accessible project to date.
If I’ve sold you on this album by now, then go and get your rap genius tab ready on your computer, because you’re going to need it. The beats are beats; they’re not meant to be the star of the show. Aes is all about the words on his projects. A few months after its release, and I’m still catching lyrics I missed on previous listens. If you’re genuinely nervous you might not hear what I’m hearing with this album, then skip the first song and start with “Rings.” If you like what you hear, make sure you go back and listen to “Mystery Fish.” It’s a great cut, with an attention-grabbing beat, but it’s definitely not for everyone just starting out.
One of my top three songs on the album, “Rings” is also an extremely straightforward and personal song about failing, or losing touch with, your artistic desires. With the first bar Aesop tells us, with a simplistic but attractive honesty, that he “used to draw/hard to admit that I used to draw.” Directly establishing his themes allows him to bring a listener in, once they’re hooked, it’s time to start dropping the meticulously crafted and fantastical lines that are trademark Aesop Rock. Amongst the “2 headed unicorns” and “shapes falling out of the fringe” Aesop is also telling us the story of the trying-not-to-starve artist at school in New York.
Moreover, “Rings” is a song about loss. Each verse ends with four bars that discuss all the things Aesop has “left.” They’re dark. There’s fear and there’s death: that’s Aesop; that’s all of us. The somber, and subtly violent, tone is echoed in the hook, which describes a proverbial “they” chopping “you down just to count your rings.” We’re not talking about the age of trees here, we’re talking about achievements, possessions, any markers of success. Aesop is putting together an image that sends the message that when anyone tries to be an artist, there’s alway going to be that “they” cutting them down in an effort to point out all they haven’t achieved, yet.
His personal charm, laced with consistent existential fear, shines through on the following track “Lotta Years.” The storyline of the track is simple: just Aesop chatting with a guy at an ice cream shop and the girl at the local juice place. In the first encounter, Aesop’s mind drifts to contrast between his server’s blunt tattoo and how “the message is immediate,” as opposed to Aes who took time “making friends with cool artists” so he could get deep and meaningful tattoos. Here, we see him touch on one of the recurring themes of the album: meaning. He’s posing a question to the listener, asking what matters more, depth or expediency? At the same time, Aesop’s delivery on the goofier bars of this first verse, the ones where he’s ordering “Cherry? No. Whip? Yes,” ground him as a personable and approachable artist despite the emotional weight to his lyrics.
Mixing depression with a good dose of eccentricism helps make the tenth track “Kirby” a palatable and wholly thought-provoking cut. In terms of content, this is a song about his new kitten, which in itself adds a subtle layer of comedy. Comedy that’s reflected in the hook of the song: “Hey Kirby/ What you doing Kirby?/ Why’d you eat that leaf?” More than a silly track about a cat, Aesop is also discussing how “fifteen years of taking prescriptions” has failed him, and both he and his psychiatrist are all out of ideas in terms of his mental health. Thus the song ends up being a somber commentary on the permanence of depression. The track is an excellent example of how Aes’ songs are built upon these complementary levels of meaning, which at times work to ease the listener into the gut of the matter. First, it’s kittens, then it’s hints of depression, then it’s resignation to mishaps with medication. Each song’s development ends up being a methodical crescendo.
Depression, as a theme, comes back again and again, and takes a very self-aware turn on the ninth track “Shrunk,” where Aes breaks down the three steps of a psychiatrist visit. In the final phase, and from the point of view of the doctor, Aes critiques both himself and perhaps even his music saying, “When you start getting all expressive and symbolic/ it’s impossible to actualize an honest diagnostic.” In this line we get Aesop admitting that his music is packed to the point of it being at times egregious for the listener, but we also see him confess that he does this as a means of guarding himself from approaching his more oppressive emotions.
The Impossible Kid is another strong installment in Aesop’s long career of telling you how he feels without telling you how he feels while telling you about this one time at a little league game, while telling you about the local juice place. He’s here to be himself, “act natural/ whatever that means for you,” make you think, and sustain his celebrated place in the hip-hop underground.
I listened to The Impossible Kid on a midday train to Manhattan, walking around two college campuses, in the time the Staples Copy and Print Center kept me on hold, on the way home from work, at two in the morning when I couldn’t sleep, at six in the morning when the sun started coming up, and I’m still listening. So make sure you stop sleeping and start a long term relationship with this album as soon as possible.