4 out of 5
Produced by: Aesop Rock
Are we giving out awards for, like, making something really freaking listenable? I mean, we are, right? That’s essentially what we do?
This is Aesop Rock’s seventh album. It is my first Aesop Rock album. I remember his Def Jux days, or rather I remember selling those albums back in those days, and automatically (silently) deriding purchasers for buying something that was, like, popular. Or something. Who knows what beef I had? That’s a question. I miss my beef.
As has happened with other labels / producers over the years, I’m following one particular vein of music, secure in that I won’t be led astray by my dedication (else that label or producer suffer my devotional retraction and thus certainly be out of business within a year), and then suddenly I find myself face to face with an artist I’d previously sworn off. Normally what ends up happening is I eat crow and regret not jumping on the bandwagon sooner, but ya gotta learn somehow. Case in point: Rhymesayers; Aesop Rock.
Aesop has had several releases on the label between now and then, but still: This is my first. And I’m pretty damn dumbfounded.
Owning quite a bit of Rhymesayers’ catalogue now (not nearly a majority of it, but still enough to have poked at a lot of its variations), as well as having sampled other notables from the corners of the hip-hop world, if I can drop one – perhaps divisive – generalism, it would be that no matter how good your producer and how deep your sample bench goes, it’s still really hard to make a full album’s worth of standout material. It happens, but it’s rare, and I’d say it’s rare even across some classic releases. This could branch off into a conversation about how other musical genres have the same issue, and I wouldn’t disagree, but hip-hop at its barest of a beat and an MC has less variables then a lot of these other genres (which isn’t a diss of simplicity, as that makes compelling examples of it that much more impressive) and so it’s likely that you’ll have a couple tracks that just don’t land the hook quite as effectively as others. And I think we just sort of roll with it, because albums are a certain length, and more bang for your buck, and etc. But I’d be fine cutting a runtime down by 10-20 minutes to ditch the tracks that feel more like ideas or retreads.
Having now vaguely spit upon the entire history of hip-hop, let me ignore all that history for the present, and for Aesop Rock. The tricky balance with layering your album – trying to get around that (as I describe it) inevitable staidness – is that you can sometimes mislead the listener that they’re hearing a different song than they are (starting off with some catchiness that just parts the curtains on the rest of the song, sans catchiness), or even bury your genre so much that it’s more of a rock or pop song, or something more abstract. The Impossible Kid – Aesop – has pretty much counters everything I’ve laid out. All 16 tracks of this album are dense, and catchy as Hell, both lyrically and sonically. Within a couple of listens I was already miming choruses and several more listens later I realized I wasn’t even close to being tired of listening to the disc.
Aesop seems to have a keen sense of tone and pacing, applying his sneering flow to roll out his string of wordplay at a confident pace that rides the beat instead of trying to dominate it, chopping up that beat with ample extras that never betray the soul of any given track. Thus, you’re kept in a constant groove for an hour plus, prevented from dipping into boredom by the varying sounds, kept invested by every unique spin on a hook, and then provided the cherry on top of Aesop’s lauded expansive vocab, making new highlight lyrics stick out on successive listens.
…Which does bring up the most common criticism of the artist: That his wordsmithery leads to as much nonsense as gems. While my isolated listening experience has me disagreeing with that – Impossible Kid seems very focused, thematically, on memories and growing up, and Aesop’s rhymes are a little slippery but rarely off topic – I will say that the particular writing style for this disc felt very insular, and often like snapshots instead of complete thoughts. So these are moments from Aesop’s history, chopped and diced and set to music, but with a lot of personal references (which are always distancing to me as a listener) and often not a definitive ‘point’ to a track beyond the memory itself. This is hardly the worst sin to commit on an album – at least there’s fresh content on every track, and not just battle boasts and swearing – but it’s the one thing that keeps me from absolutely falling in love with the album. I return for the dense and addictive rhythm of it, but I’m lacking in quotable quotes.
So that’s my 90,000 words of eating crow. I’m sorry to all those Rock fans I disparaged back in the day. You were right. At least, that’s assuming that those precious discs are as packed and impressive as The Impossible Kid.