As Aesop Rock tours behind his latest album, The Impossible Kid, he realizes that, as a rapper who is now 40-years-old, he doesn't have much company in pursuing his goal to stay relevant, grow his audience and continue to progress musically.
"I have very few role models in rap that are still not only going, but really trying to push what they've done somewhere new," Aesop — real name Ian Bavitz — said in a recent e-mail interview. "It's actually pretty disheartening. Sure, you could name me a handful of older rappers that still do it— fine.
If you go: Aesop Rock plays Wednesday at the Vogue
"But there's no real precedent for continued progress to be the norm. People hang it up, or fall off, or just get involved in other endeavors. It's also difficult to pop my head up and attempt to compete for promo space with the newest 20-year-old who is out there killing it. It's much harder to say 'Hey, I'm still here' no matter what the product sounds like."
A graduate of Boston University, he self-released a full-length album and EP before getting signed by Mush Records and releasing his full-fledged debut, "Float," in 2000. He then signed to El-P's Def Jux label, releasing five full-length albums (the last of which, 2007's None Shall Pass, debuted at No. 50 on "Billboard" magazine's all-genre Top 200 album chart). By that time, Aesop had begun to emerge from the underground scene and was making his presence felt in the mainstream hip-hop/rap world. His deal with Def Jux ended when the label was put on "hiatus" in 2010
Aesop surfaced on the Rhymesayers label in 2011, collaborating with producer/rapper and former Def Jux labelmate Rob Sonic in the group Hail Mary Mallon. His next solo album, Skelethon, arrived a year later. That album debuted and No. 21 on the Top 200 album chart and No. 1 on Billboard's Independent Albums chart and found Aesop gaining more of a mainstream music audience.
As an artist who says he didn't really seek the spotlight, Aesop said he was fine with the way his career has developed.
"The path I took is just me taking baby steps in an attempt to stay comfortable," Aseop said. "Being underground, or less popular, etc, it's just a side effect of what I did anyway. I liked a scene that wasn't really that popular to begin with. This is all niche s***. As I got older I attempted to twist it into a job, which so far has maintained. But this is the only path I've really known. I always just do my thing and assume people will seek it out if they're that interested."
Now with The Impossible Kid, Aesop appears poised to further expand his audience. The album has received strong reviews and opened at No. 2 on Billboard's Independent Albums chart and No. 3 on its Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, while checking in at No. 30 on the Top 200.
The reality of reaching age 40 was a major source for inspiration for The Impossible Kid, as Aesop examines his life, looking back all the way to his childhood he attempts to figure out who he is as a person and how he got to where he now. Some of the lyrics are fairly straight forward, a surprise considering Aesop has a long-running reputation for being cryptic in his lyrics.
"That's pretty much what the Impossible Kid is largely about, just kinda staring at 40 and thinking, 'Okay, what now?' " he said. "It's a lot of reflective songs, and some are even an attempt to re-gather and not let old baggage hold me back. I do have this desire as of late to diversify and really attempt to get involved in as much as possible. My skill set is so niche, that it starts getting a little scary at my age. I don't know what I want it to be. I just want to learn to be happy."
As on past albums, the music Aesop wrote for The Impossible Kid doesn't go for the kind of big, poppy hooks that are common on Top 40 hip-hop hits, instead bringing a more angular, synthy sound that has melody, but works more as a backdrop for the Aesop's rapping and the beats than a focal points for the tracks.
To create The Impossible Kid, Aesop decided he needed to work alone as much as possible to realize his vision for the album. He eschewed bringing in guest vocalists or working with beatmakers, preferring to write and produce the tracks himself. Much of the writing was done at a barn away from cities and distractions.
After getting the initial tracks together, he relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he spent a year recording final vocals and finishing the tracks on The Impossible Kid.
What helped to keep the project from becoming too isolating of an undertaking — and helped extend the gap between Skelethon and the new album to four years — were several side projects that happened as he continued to work on The Impossible Kid.
Hail Mary Mallon released its second album, Bestiary, in 2014. Aesop also formed a group, The Uncluded, with folk renegade Kimya Dawson, which released its debut album, Hokey Fright, in 2013. He also collaborated with Homeboy Sandman in the group Lice, which has released two EPs.
Those side projects could resume at some point. But for now, Aesop is back to concentrating on his solo career, and is starting 2017 with a headlining tour in support of The Impossible Kid.
"We are hitting all new locations since our last run, so the set will remain similar — heavy on The Impossible Kid stuff, with handful of oldies, some Mallon, some Rob Sonic," Aesop said of the show. "We're probably taking out a few [songs] that got tiresome or weren't quite working last time around, just kinda tailoring things."
The live stage continues to be a challenge for Aesop, who finds performing to be an acquired talent. He feels he has improved, but doesn't feel he's mastered the live stage.
"I think over the time I got the hang of something that works for me, but being on stage is not my natural environment," he said. "I enjoy writing the songs, producing music, making recordings. For me, that is the heart and soul of the entire operation. Live stuff is what I put up with so I can have those other things. As far as my own improvement goes, it's just been a lot of years at this, takin' cues from people I think do it better than me. I still don't really hit the stage with confidence — I kinda walk out there like, 'Well... here goes!' "