Thursday, May 12, 2016

album review: 'the impossible kid' by aesop rock

So when I covered Kevin Morby last week, I mentioned that much of the wordplay I tend to prefer is intricate and layered, or at least trying a little harder than bog standard metaphor trying and failing for universality. And with rare exception, if you take a look at my favourite albums of any given year, that focus on lyricism has led to certain records landing on the list that push the gauntlet lyrically but might not quite be as innovative in their sound - or if they are, it's in subtle ways that serves and compliments the writing.

But that's not saying I don't have my limit on the other extreme, the songs that weave such tangled webs of words that clawing forth any specific meaning is a twisted nightmare in and of itself, and that's not even counting the writers who focus more on impressionist poetry over direct meaning. To me, this material draws a lot of curiosity, but the bizarre thing is that they can be a little emotionally distancing - when you get so focused on untangling what is said, you can lose the heart of it all.

And that was my biggest fear before I started delving into Aesop Rock, the veteran MC who is known for having the biggest vocabulary in hip-hop and with a considerable discography and reportedly impenetrable albums. Not only was I concerned about verbosity and so many words adding up to less than expected, but that I would lose the emotional core in the music. Fortunately, as with so much hype on the internet, this didn't happen, and it's been a hugely rewarding experience revisitng Aesop Rock's discography in full, complete with all of the eccentric production choices, oddball lyrical knots, and records that might all run long, but often have a strong enough emotional core to hold my attention. And here's the thing: sure, the music is going to require some work to decode, but no more so than Joanna Newsom or Uncommon Nasa or any other singer-songwriter with an eye for detail, and unlike a rap act like Shabazz Palaces who can get lost in their own impenetrability, Aesop Rock's songs tend to have a point that will crystallize if you dig into them. 

So yeah, I was definitely curious to check out his newest solo release, four years after the critically acclaimed - for good reason - Skelethon, which I'd place in my upper tier of Aesop Rock records just below Labor Days and maybe a smidge above Float. And considering his production has only gotten more layered and complex and buzz was suggesting this might be one of Aesop Rock's most specific and direct releases to date - which is a good thing, as sometimes even he can slip into the lyrical rabbit hole - I was genuinely thrilled to dig into this. So what did we get?

Well, I have to be honest with you all here: I've been sitting on this review for more than a few days now, and not because the album is impenetrable to the point where I needed that extra time to decode it. No, in this case it's more trying to construct where I feel this album ultimately lands on the spectrum of great Aesop Rock releases - I know it's great, a layered, compelling, hard-hitting listen that's obviously getting a high recommendation, but does it hit me deeply enough for me to say it's one of the best records of the year? Well, let's find out, and fair warning, this review might get convoluted.

Actually, I'm not really sure I can make that statement the way I could about previous Aesop Rock records. The buzz wasn't lying, as this is probably one of Aesop Rock's most immediately accessible records to date in terms of hooks and storytelling, to the point where you can fairly quickly grasp what's going on or what Aesop Rock is discussing, Even in terms of song structure this record has a lot more momentum than I expected, as it's one of his shortest projects to date - he's made EPs longer than this album! But I'd argue that's a good thing: not only does it keep the production diverse, but it enables Aesop Rock to stay pointed and on-topic while still maintaining the layered complexity for which he's famous. The vocabulary is still immense - even I found myself going to a dictionary a few times - but the flow is so good and the mood so well realized that you can easily get the gist without it.

And there's definitely a point to this increased focus: where thematically much of Skelethon seemed to have Aesop Rock retreating into a tightly woven knot of his creation, The Impossible Kid takes the opposite trajectory, and finds Aesop Rock actively trying to engage with the world as he peels through layers of complicated emotion. And here's the thing: Aesop Rock sketches such a complete and detailed world and character with his music that simply having him react and contextualize the modern world can make for great material, both dramatic and comedic. Take the observations surrounding my generation on 'Lotta Years', where he sees our colourful brand of self-expression with both exasperation and envy - for him, that sort of expression took time and commitment, whereas some of my generation treat it with superficiality, and he envies that nonchalance. Or take 'Shrunk', where he reluctantly squares off with a psychiatrist who can see through his obfuscation, and while he has a certain amount of disgust for the entire scene, he's going to try and come back. And of course then we have 'Kirby' right after it, a song lionizing his kitten who helped break open his internal barriers when therapy and medication didn't work. And of course we get a few songs like 'Dorks' or 'Lazy Eye' or 'Tuff', which shows Aesop Rock coming to grips with his own peculiar quirks and idiosyncrasies, which allows him to be more confident in his lane and not even waste time slagging hip-hop more concerned with flossing than art. And what I really love is that Aesop Rock isn't really playing any of these tracks for comedy, he's just so damn witty and his delivery so expressive that it comes through naturally, and it feeds into the underlying melancholy he's trying to process. 

And make no mistake, there's a lot to unpack: 'Rings' reflects on his failures in visual art and the guilt for losing track of his passions, and 'Rabies' goes into his isolationist streak and frustration with his lack of place, a theme that runs through the entire record. Much of this seems rooted in grief he feels for the loss of his long-time friend Camu Tao, who died from lung cancer eight years ago and which Aesop is still processing on songs like 'Get Out Of The Car'. You can tell Aesop is trying to make peace with the idea of death on songs like 'Water Tower', where he doesn't romanticize suicide so much as see a comfort in his body decomposing to create new life. A morbid moment, sure, but this record doesn't romanticize death or misery - Aesop sees the significance like the death of the gopher during his younger brother's baseball game or the Ministry concert his mom wouldn't let his older brother attend even though he professes he'd die to see them, but it's placed in the context of a song where he's reconnecting with his brothers, sharing life in the face of possible death. But where the themes coalesce the most is on 'Molecules', a track about displacement, not just in location but in hip-hop culture and with respect to an audience who only seems to listen when he's at his lowest point. And it raises a powerful point: this is a record that focuses more than ever on recovery, coming back into the world, and yet the fear that it would drive away those who crave angst and confusion leaves Aesop wondering whether the only place society sees high art or cares at all is in the torture and death of the artist. It's not a rational fear and Aesop knows that, but in speaking to his authentic emotion and an irrational and all the more superficial society, I can understand the fear of getting better, especially if it would come at the sake of the art.

Of course, nothing I said here would matter much if the music itself didn't deliver... and wow, it definitely does, although on some level I won't always say Aesop Rock's production is as varied and complex as the lyricism. Hell, some of the moments where the production had the most impact is when it pulled back to just atmosphere to emphasize a point, like on 'Shrunk' and 'Dorks' and 'Blood Sandwich'. But there is density in the melodic layering courtesy of the synths and guitars, and I really liked the moments where he brought in horns for melodic accents and punctuation like on 'Mystery Fish' and 'Rabies', or how that organ on 'Supercell' established the eerieness that would later be echoed by the choppy but instantly recognizable hook that sounded like it had a theremin tone running within it. There are points where I think the hooks are a little clumsy - 'Rings' is the biggest example, as the cadence and synths on the hooks feel too slow to really flow off the verses well - but on the other hand you get the bounce of 'Kirby' or the fuller alien synths on 'Lazy Eye', or the places where it sounds like we get a live bass line like on 'Lotta Years' against the bouncy countermelody in the keyboard, or the mournful interplay with the guitar and piano on 'Get Out Of The Car' or on 'Molecules' where I'd swear the bass picks up its cadence to match the patter of the synth in an interesting parallel. And a lot of the synth picks up great texture too: the whirring cascades of 'Mystery Fish', the plucky keys on 'Blood Sandwich', and the low roil of 'Shrunk'. I will say that I did find some of the drum pick-ups a little too lo-fi to blend in with the mix entirely or have as much punch, and there are a few grooves that don't quite get as much momentum - 'TUFF' and 'Water Tower' in particular - but to contrast the sampling was awesome, in particular that MIDI loop that opens up 'Lazy Eye' that I could swear comes from a Star Wars DOS game I played as a kid. I guess if I was nitpicking, I'd say that Aesop Rock's voice could do to fit a little better into the atmosphere - the synth blending was good, but there are points where he sits atop the mix rather than within it - but again, that's a nitpick at best.

And to bring it all together... the more I think about this album, the more I end up liking it, but this is also one of those records where I'm hesitant about over-praising it. The wordplay is goddamn superb, the thematic execution is top-class, but there are a few too many production missteps for me to really say it's one of the best of the year across all genres - lyrically, it got there, but musically it's a shade short. And even with that I'd be lying if I said there weren't lyrical detours that feel briefer than ever, but still don't quite feed into a stronger thematic resonance. So for me, I'm thinking an extremely strong 8/10 and a high recommendation - if you're looking for hard-hitting, incredibly lyrical hip-hop... well, you've probably already heard this, but if you haven't, check it out. This is the sort of music that demands your support.

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