Aesop Rock’s emotional compass has always paired, deftly, with his impressive command of the English language. There’s humility, exploratory self-awareness, and shocks of humor in the artist’s oeuvre. The Rhymesayers emcee has been crunching vocabulary and crafting syrupy beats for years now, and here, with his newest record The Impossible Kid, Aesop has molted any personal preservation – this album sees pockets of vulnerability, aching reveries of love and cerebral realignment, and beautifully constructed deliveries. It’s an amazing experience that bucks heads with convention, especially in a plain yogurt 2016, where there has been a dearth of creativity in some musical forums. Before the celebrated artist heads to San Diego to play at the Belly Up this Friday, we chatted with Aesop Rock about a myriad of topics, ranging from lyricism to the tenuous ebb of hip-hop journalism in today’s culture.
Rob Patrick: The Impossible Kid is releasing on multiple formats, one of them being vinyl. What’s your take on the reemergence of physical media in recent years?
Aesop Rock: Well, for me it had never really gone away – I’ve been lucky enough to always be able to press up physical product for my albums. I mean, I love it – which is sorta funny because I’m not really a collector of things per se. I have artwork, but I also do tend to purge my belongings sometimes. That said – there’s really no better feeling than unwrapping a vinyl of the project you’ve worked on for years. Seeing the artwork in a large format like that is so pleasing – and Rhymesayers has always been into entertaining interesting packaging ideas. Essentially they’ll take almost anything I can think of with an artist/designer and try to figure out a way to get it done.
Lyrically, you’ve always been erudite, thoughtful, and boundary-bending. Here, on your latest record, you’re even more confessional than ever before. What was the impetus for creating – and then sharing – such an immense part of yourself with your fans?
It was kind of an accident. I just write whatever I’m thinking about at the time without realizing how deep it can go. I think with this one I’m kinda facing a 40th birthday, and I have been doing a lot of reflecting because of that. But it wasn’t really a plan, and I don’t think I even realized I had done that until I started playing the songs for other people. It often takes someone else to point out what you’ve done – because I’m just too close to it all.
Blood Sandwich and its corresponding music video is incredibly revealing, visual, and emotionally aching. Rob Shaw directed both this and your incredibly funny web series for The Impossible Kid. What did you discuss with him while crafting the aesthetic of these features?
Rob has done a few videos for me in the past, and has thus far done all video content associated with the new record. At this point we have a pretty solid working relationship. I play him the songs, tell him a very general idea of what I feel the important parts are – and then I try back off a bit. I have at times gotten “too” involved in trying to say exactly what the video should be at every second – and you know, that just doesn’t work. I’m not a director. If you’re working with someone you really wanna give them room to exercise what they know about their own craft, in the same way you don’t want to lay on on operating table and tell a surgeon “cut here”. Let them do it. So Rob usually comes back with a handful of directions we can go in. Then we’ll pick one and tweak it and talk it out, but I ultimately would like to think he has room to get busy.
You’re utilizing social media to tell stories about yourself and your album. Modernly, how important do you think social media is to musicians, and did you immediately gravitate to these online tools?
I’d stop if I could I think. I mean I think it can be great, I see how it can work. But really I feel like I would love to be in a place where the art would speak for itself. I’m not really comfortable promoting my personality or being super social in that capacity, and you’re basically saying whatever will get people to like you most, or at least pay you the most attention. I try to tailor these things to keep it a little interesting and a little relevant to who I am as a person, but sometimes I would love to just completely stop doing it without the possibility of it affecting my career. I’m not sure if it would or wouldn’t – but the the behind-the-scenes people definitely like the artists to do it. I like to write lyrics and make beats – that’s what I’m here for. In order to be a musician you also have to take two decent photos a day, post two witty quips, document your meals humorously, on and on and on, etc. It’s just like… what are we even here for?
Artist Alex Pardee is such a fantastically interesting talent. In working on the visuals of the album, he has created an additional layer of emotional tonality. What was the genesis of this collaboration?
Alex is an old friend. We’ve done little things together at times, poster, t-shirt, etc. But it had never all lined up in a way where he could create a full package for me. He’s kinda the best because he is all about taking the basic idea and really creating an entire world around it – and for this particular project it was spot on. It’s a joy opening up the files he sends me – it’s always a ton of choices, multiple versions of everything, just a crazy amount of work. It really feels like he takes it as seriously as I take the music – and that feels great. I never got why some people would spend so much time getting a record to be exactly where it works for them, and them slap something on the cover. Alex is a guy who can really add a new dimension to the whole thing and I couldn’t be more pleased with what he did.
The structure of hip-hop is forever changing, from delivery to content. In your mind, what makes a solid, venerable, and thoughtful rhyme?
I think the beauty of it is there is no one answer to that. A rhyme could be the most simple, dumb thing on the planet, but if it’s the right words in the right order with the right delivery on the right beat, it’s perfect. There’s no one way to do it. I like tangibility really – If I make a metaphor or liken something to something else, I want it to be something you can really see or feel. Strong on image, or the kinda thing you can really feel between your fingers. Maybe an element of surprise, so when the line comes around there is a zing. But honestly it’s so hard to say – it could be anything.
When we interviewed Sage Francis, a few years ago, he was worried about the future of indie hip-hop reportage. From Pitchfork to Rolling Stone, what’s your opinion on the trajectory of hip-hop coverage into the future?
My honest answer is I have no idea. I only ever care when I turn in a project and ask my label “will this fail? can we stick a fork in me yet?” Any of the music I hear arrives to me from a link that someone re-posted from someone else or something. Half the time I have no idea what the publication is or if it’s popular at all. I don’t really read websites in the same way I used to read magazines. I guess I’ll scroll through a blog sometimes, but I don’t know the last time I went to a site to check out all the articles. Obviously support from the Pitchforks and Rolling Stones is amazing, but so much of it is tweets and tiny promo links being passed around, and then you land somewhere where the content is. I’ve been lucky enough to always work with other people that pay closer attention to that kinda stuff, so then when I finally have a project ready, they can tell me the best route.
In a study conducted by Matt Daniels in 2014, the aforementioned author found that you have the largest vocabulary in hip-hop. What is it about the sound, use, and sheer volume of words in the English language that fascinates you?
It’s hard to say. I just like hearing words. That study kinda surprised me. I mean I realize I’m wordy, but its never been about collecting the most words, it’s about stringing the right words together – something I don’t even think I was that good at until more recently. I like the way words sound when it’s the right selection stacked back to back to back – that’s kinda what pulls me in. You can’t really describe what it is, you just know when you hear it that it’s right. I also love how two people can say the same line and it has different impact each time – the delivery and moment is so important to the whole thing. As for vocabulary, I’ve always just seen it as deepening my tool box- which works for me. But the most intriguing thing about that whole study was that virtually everyone on there has fly jams, making the word count part kinda irrelevant in regards to the art.
Finally, being that you’re an alum of BU, and two of our writers went to the school, we have to ask if you’ll ever drop a Boston University reference in any future project. Pressing questions.
Hm. I remember in my junior or senior year they opened “Aesop’s Bagels” at the GSU. Not sure if that still exists. In some ways I’m a walking BU reference.