With the release The Impossible Kid, the new album from Aesop Rock out now on Rhymesayers, many fans have remarked on the collection’s personal quality. The sometimes cerebral rapper speaks plainly about the realities of his life, like on “Blood Sandwich,” where he gets into his relationship with his brothers, recounting childhood memories and admitting he isn’t as close with them as he’d like to be. In interviews, Aesop has been quick to clarify how he sees what others consider a new direction. When Noisey asked him about opening up on his seventh album, saying it wasn’t a direction he’d explored before, he responded, “Well, I kinda disagree with some of the premise of the question—for me it’s always been personal and introspective.”
The Impossible Kid certainly is Aesop’s most accessible (or least cryptic, if you like) release to date, but that isn’t to say he’s slacking lyrically or otherwise. The same metaphors, stories, and vivid images that listeners have come to expect from him exist on this record, but for the first time you may feel as though you’re getting a genuine glimpse of the person behind the music—his fears, his anxieties, his memories. Here, Aesop talks about writing from specific geographic locations, taking full control of his music, and what he’d write about if he were obscenely wealthy.
Having lived in NYC and Portland for extended periods, do you think your geographical environment affects your music?
Sure it does. I haven’t been in Portland that long, but I’ve moved around a bit. I think it kind of has to do with the different phases of one’s life that accompany these moves. It’s rare that I’ve moved without making a giant life-shift, so it’s always more than just my environment. It’s new people, new food, new day-to-day. At this point I’ve moved so many times, I almost don’t feel connected to anything. I feel a giant pull from NY, it’ my true home, and it’s where my family is, but when you’ve moved around this many times, it’s hard to not feel displaced. In my music, I try to make the most of that.
I was listening to your interview with Open Mike Eagle and you guys were talking about being working artists, as opposed to sort of blowing up and being set for life. Do you think that reaching that level of monetary success would alter the stuff you write about or the kinds of stories you tell? What would a filthy rich Aesop Rock album sound like?
There’s no way to tell, but honestly I’d hope that I’d be the kinda guy who would use financial security as an excuse to get weirder. Nothing I do is necessarily dictated by finances, and I don’t really make the kinda music that is gonna land me that check, but if by fluke I did, I would love to hear what I could do just having the stress of money not even be a factor in my life. The amount of brain space taken up by thinking about where the money is gonna come from for the rest of my days is torturous. It’s not even about being broke, there are a lot of people worse off than me, it’s just the way this is all setup. It’s never not there, not looming. Even if you have money, there’s always the threat of some horrific accident wiping out your life’s work. Removing that particular stress would certainly alter perspectives and, by default, my music. But I don’t think I’d be rapping from a yacht, just a different headspace, a yacht-shaped headspace. I kinda look at a guy like Daniel Radcliffe. That guy never has to do anything again in life, but instead of sitting around, he’s making movies like Swiss Army Man, which I haven’t seen, but the trailer is enough to know that he’s free to just follow his brain and heart without worry. I love it.
How would you describe the evolution of your songwriting process? Do you feel like it’s going to continue to change as long as you make music? Or do you think you’re sort of refining it toward a finished state?
In a lot of ways I found a system pretty early on and just kept going with it. It’s a lot of note-taking and a lot of looping things. The lyrics end up being a patchwork of notes, and the beats are also things I come back to again and again to add and subtract. Somewhat early on I got out of the routine of needing to write, produce, and record one song at a time from beginning to end. Once I was able to do that it really opened things up. When I’m working on a project I can wake up and pick one of many things to open up and dig into depending on my mood. I can also have one track open, find a sample that I think would fit a different song, close one and open the other, etc. By mid-project I’m working on five to eight files a day, all kinda at the same time. Lyrics too, I’ll have several verses being written and recorded in various states of completion. Being pretty used to the album-making process now, I’ve noticed that it feels like one day I have a giant mess, but then overnight I’ll realize I actually have an album somewhere in there, and the songs seem to find completion all around the same time.
How similar do you feel like your lyrical style is to the way you talk? Does the writing process let you tap into a certain manner of expressing yourself that you can’t normally access?
I see similarities and differences. But I spend lots and lots of time writing and rewriting these things. There’s no way I could casually talk like I write, it’s just an entirely different thing. It’s like taking a photo of some flowers versus spending weeks on a painting of some flowers. I love writing because I can push and pull pieces constantly, really make it something beyond what is normal for me. All that said, the older I get, the better I’ve gotten at really infusing my personality into these songs. At one time this was just about trying to be ill with the lyrics, whereas now it’s more about trying to represent my thoughts and humor accurately. It feels like I spent a decade building a toolbox that I can now finally use correctly, or try anyway. I feel like a lot of the punchlines I used to do could have been written by anyone, but it takes a lot of work to get to the point where you can write a punchline that really reflects one’s casual sense of humor. I enjoy working these things to death and making them perfect, but I try to be way more mindful about not losing myself when doing that.
As somebody who takes ownership of every component of your music, how do you think working alone compares to a more collaborative process? Are there advantages to both for the music you make?
It’s all phases. Collaborating can yield amazing results if everyone is really making a priority of the collaboration. That’s why I started doing longer, fully collaborative projects, whereas on my solo work nobody is gonna take that stuff as seriously as I am. I just hit a point with my solo work where I really needed to see the vision through to make it feel right. That’s not to say I’m done bringing in features forever, but for where I am now, that’s what works. If I were writing a book, I would never ask a friend to mail me a chapter. I’d oversee every last word and make sure it was all from my head, and accurately portraying what I want the vibe to be. That’s an analogy that makes sense to me in regards to my songwriting right now.