Aesop Rock does not pretend to be young. Rather, he seems to revel in getting old.
On The Impossible Kid, the seventh and arguably best album of his two-decade career, the rapper with the long-weaponized voice and enviably expansive vocabulary confronts his advancing age at almost every turn. He wastes little time broaching the topic, too, turning the chorus of the second song, "Rings," into a mantra for his own inevitable obsolescence.
"All heart, though we would've made cowardly kings," he chants, alone amid a synthesizer-and-drum din. "They will chop you down just to count your rings." It's an unflinching examination of what it feels like to give up part of your passion for the sake of practicality, with worry for the future locked in an eternal struggle with any lingering idealism and valor. For a rhymer who has built a reputation on sounding tough inside mazes of inscrutable lines and dense metaphors, the admission is disarmingly candid, an open expression of adult anxieties.
"Age gives you a lot of perspective, and I hope I can apply that to what I write," he says of the evident shift on his first record in four years. "It also has helped me narrow down what I find important within what I do, what parts keep me coming back, and how I can really zero in on the parts I find attractive."
Such struggles line most of The Impossible Kid. During "Lotta Years," he expresses astonishment and unease with the modern world around him through hyperrealist, kids-these-days tales—the man with the lipstick traces tattoo, the woman with the prosthetic dreadlocks—and confessions of his own analog youth. For the brilliant "Blood Sandwich," he webs together nostalgic recollections of since-spoiled childhood innocence, such as the time his mother banned the family from a Ministry concert, into a long-distance love letter to his brothers.
And in the most grown move possible, Aesop Rock finds the therapy he's always needed in the form of a fluffy, crusty-eyed kitten named Kirby: "Back at the haunt, found god in the hamper/Briefs on her head, playing Walking With a Panther/Good around misery and golden-era samplers," he rhymes, his ironclad voice suddenly cloaked in feline softness. Void of bravado, this revelation is as surprising as it is charming, as if the person behind the microphone is finally comfortable stepping into focus himself.
"It just came out that way. My stuff has been so drenched in metaphor in the past that there is a lot of room to be a little more straightforward without losing much of myself," he says. "It's still a windy path, but I guess I was able to peel back some layers in a way that connects with some people."
Indeed, The Impossible Kid's reception has been hearteningly warm, from a perfect score in Magnet and high marks in Pitchfork to strong first-week sales and a spot on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, with the host proudly announcing that the rapper would be "performing on network television for the very first time tonight." Rolling Stone published a long, sympathetic interview about adulthood and shifts in hip-hop culture, while The Source parsed his lyrics and asked him how the present makes him reflect on his past.
Despite a string of glowing reviews, there's been a pernicious thread throughout much of The Impossible Kid's coverage—that is, a sense of astonishment that a forty-year-old musician with two decades of work behind him is evolving, getting better, remaining restless. "Aesop Rock has yet to run out of words," Pitchfork's review closed. "After nearly twenty years in the rap game, he is still finding new means of self-expression." Thrasher, likewise, noted, "It's nice to see one's passion uncorrupted by their profession. In short, he truly cares about this rap shit."
So why is it surprising that artists with strong pasts and consistently compelling perspectives could get better and grow, that they could refine their methods and messages for a particular phase of their lives? Of course Aesop Rock addresses aging on The Impossible Kid, released just weeks ahead of his fortieth birthday; that's his place in life, at least right now. Where else should his focus be?
The constant content cycle, though, is built to favor what's new, untested, unheard—fresh grist for the click-to-refresh mill, which never stops. It's easier to find something unexpected in a voice or vantage you've never heard. And in a media market where shares generate currency, it's more valuable to breathlessly break news of the unknown than to analyze the context of a known quantity.
The Impossible Kid doesn't make many concessions to the sounds of now; there's very little evidence that Aesop Rock cares about the rise of trap or EDM, or at least the thought of incorporating them into his own style. Instead, The Impossible Kid digs deeper into his dissonant, warped brand of boom bap. Mystical samples and horror-show keyboards propel "Water Tower." The words of the drum-less "Get Out of the Car" bounce between coruscant guitar and chiming piano, suggesting darting post-rock laced with complicated verses.
You could see that as stubborn defiance, the old man fighting against tides of change. But on The Impossible Kid, such moves mostly come across as a musician aware of what he likes and working to update it for his current circumstances—a forty-year-old, long-rapping, new cat owner, equally mesmerized and perplexed by the world's possibilities and problems. Aesop Rock seems to understand it's impossible to become a kid again, even if youth is more fashionable than legacy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Fabled Age"