In certain circles, Aesop Rock is considered the greatest rapper of all time. It’s easy to see why: he is capable of muscling more impressive imagery and vocal dexterity into a single three minute track than lesser artists manage in entire discographies, a one-of-a-kind wordsmith from whom each new album is an invitation to fans to roll up their sleeves and sink their arms into a lyrical treasure trove, eager to find his most subtle work of wordplay or strongest extended simile. Few were surprised when, in 2014, a popular study undertaken by Matt Daniels found him to have the largest vocabulary out of any recorded rapper by a considerable extent. The man is the Oxford English Dictionary made flesh, just without the love for twerking and emojis.
For many critics this ceaseless and highly cerebral flow is alienating. To them discerning which couplets constitute a meaningful narrative and which are just exercises in MF Doom-esque instinctive word-wrangling is an impossible task, the musical equivalent of trying to speed-read Gravity’s Rainbow without glancing at SparkNotes. Ultimately ‘The Impossible Kid’ is an album that will reinforce whatever preconceptions about Aesop Rock you already hold. However, it’s also worth noting that this is most probably the least cryptic and most honest of all his records.
Yes, being able to accurately interpret more than 40% of Aesop’s verbal tsunami still signals you out as being sorely in need of a life, but you don’t have to have Bletchley-level decoding skills to realise that a large section of this album is devoted to blackly comic observations on society’s treatment of depression (which Aesop himself has struggled with extensively over his career). The scathing ‘Shrunk’ includes a fantastic extended verse framed as a dialogue between him and his psychiatrist that begins with “She said ‘I’m not your enemy,’ I said ‘That sounds like something that my enemy would say instead of playing off the chemistry’” and ends with him realising that she’s part of society’s exploitative “racket, not a rehabilitation”. This seems harsh until the same shrink reappears in ‘Kirby’ to offer a sage alternative to anti-depressants: “I don’t know, maybe get a kitten?”
Much like Sage Francis’ ‘Copper Gone’, this is not an album about mental health; instead it utilises the writer’s personal experience of social vulnerability to illustrate the pitfalls of a society that cannot sympathise with symptoms that are not universally experienced. Much of ‘The Impossible Kid’ was written when Aesop retreated to the barn referenced in ‘Rabies’ and ‘Supercell’ in an effort to escape his fraught family relationships in San Francisco and allow him to collect his thoughts and bind his scars before reaching 40. This corporeal distancing and rediscovery of the joy of painting (the core subject of the barnstorming ‘Rings’) has relaxed his writing style, allowing him to invite the humour back into his solo work that he denied ‘Skelethon’ but displayed in spades on The Uncluded’s ‘Hokey Fright’ and Hail Mary Mallon’s two albums. Will there be a better couplet this year than “I lost the plot but not the passion for the novel”? It probably depends on the release date of ‘RTJ3’.
Speaking of Run The Jewels, it’s hard to ignore the amount of shared DNA between their two records and most of Aesop’s various post-2010 releases. As he was a massive influence on El-P’s delivery style, it’s nice to see that Aesop takes so many production pointers from his old label mate, creating ‘Blade Runner with biceps’ beats that sound deceptively retro in their simplicity (‘Supercell’ features a particularly austere two-chord synthline that the Pet Shop Boys would have sold Chris Lowe’s entire hat collection for back in the ‘80s). However, there are moments on tracks such as ‘Mystery Fish’ when Aesop sounds like he’s trying to ape the trademark El-P and Killer Mike zigzag delivery that he inspired. This feels marginally incestuous and incredibly unessential, as Aesop already has one of the most admired and unique voices in hip hop. He’s still the perennial overachiever: spouting fifteen fine-tuned bars of anything from incisive social commentary to abstract intellectual daftness per minute without ever missing a beat. If ‘The Impossible Kid’ teaches us anything it’s that putting yourself out there for your art can be damaging, but your insecurities can always be harnessed to create something spellbinding.
Words: Josh Gray
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