As New York-bred emcee Aesop Rock (real name Ian Bavitz) inches closer to 40, he’s spent a lot of time thinking about what that means and re-examining everything he’s done up until now. His latest album, The Impossible Kid— released Friday, April 29—dissects pieces of his life in a surprisingly conspicuous way, which is atypical of the famously “cryptic” writer.
Recorded partly in a secluded barn in the Pacific Northwest, The Impossible Kid plays like the wordy wordsmith had ample time to get in touch with his deepest thoughts, although he admits a lot of that was exaggerated in his press release.
“It wasn’t entirely secluded,” Bavtiz says. “I had some friends around, although it certainly was more secluded than any city I had been in prior. Furthermore, while I knocked out a good chunk of beats and writing there, I ultimately had relocated to the city for the final year of working out the songs and actually laying all my final vocals and such. Really though, I’m not a very social creature. As long as I feel comfortable, I can get in the headspace to make stuff.”
Comfortability has always been key for the often elusive artist. On the song “Dorks,” he paints a clear picture of his antisocial tendencies by repeating, “Party over here/I’ll be over there.” He’d probably rather do the laundry or work on a piece of art than get shoved into a scenario where he’s forced to mingle with random people, a stark contrast to the spirited persona he presents during a live show.
“I just don’t wanna be navigating the social dynamics of the party,” he says. “I’d rather sit in the corner and draw beards on every face in a magazine or take your dog for a walk.”
As Bavitz prepares to embark on a massive North American tour, he opened up to The Source about the album, skateboarding and turning 40.
The Source (Kyle Eustice): It’s been a few years since you released a solo album, but you’ve been busy with other projects in the meantime. Do you have to do that to kind of give yourself a break from one particular project?
Aesop Rock (Ian Bavitz): A couple things started happening at one time for me. My solo records became a thing where I really wanted to handle as much of the work as I could, including all production and all lyrics. I started having no real vocal features and no outside beats. I got help here and there, but in order for me to feel my vision was fully realized, I wanted it to be a true solo endeavor. The side effect of that is that it takes a long time. I became more picky about what would and wouldn’t make the cut than I ever had been, and ultimately it grew into an all-consuming challenge, a good challenge, but a challenge no less. I still wanted to collaborate with some friends, but didn’t always have a home for those collaborations on my solo work, so the idea of doing full albums and EPs with people came about. It felt way more real than just grabbing a random verse from someone and hoping it fit the concept right because now all parties were equally invested. It wasn’t my album or their album, it was ours. So things like Hail Mary Mallon [with Rob Sonic], The Uncluded [with Kimya Dawson] and the Lice [with Homeboy Sandman] project came out of that: a desire to make these collaborative, and often more enjoyable projects, while still chipping away at my solo stuff.
In the beginning of “Rings” you say, ‘Hard to say admit that I used to draw.’ What made you put down the pencil/paintbrush?
After college, I moved back to New York and was still making these large oil paintings in my tiny apartment, working full time and recording rap. I started getting some positive feedback in and around New York for what I had been doing musically and it felt good. People started asking me for songs, when I was gonna be rhyming and where, did I have new material, etc. I think I just started focusing on that because it felt like I was making some headway. Art was something I always worked hard at from a young age, but ultimately I think I just didn’t really have what it takes to be successful at it. I loved it—I still love it—but music was emerging in my life in a way where I saw a clearer path between what I wanted to do and how I could get there. In a lot of ways, it came more naturally to me. The passion for both was always there, but the successes and positive reinforcement became more prevalent with my music, so it sorta won out.
Is it something you’re exploring again?
I never really stopped per se. I just kinda gave up on the idea that it would ever be a career path for me. I certainly stopped making the types of large paintings I was making in the late 90s, but I always have kept a sketch book around. I guess lately I find myself in a phase where I’m getting in there a lot more, but you know, it’s really difficult to get to that point where you’re not mad at it, you know? Like if you’re great at basketball, but one day you realize you’re not gonna necessarily “make it,” and take a break, it’s really hard to get back out there and “just have fun” with it. You want to be awesome or not do it at all. That’s kinda my relationship with art and skateboarding. I needed to get to a place where I could get back the feeling of simply enjoying the process. I think I’m getting there.
Do you get sick of people describing your lyrics as “cryptic.” Do you ever feel like you need to change your writing style to suit other people’s needs?
I mean they can be cryptic, so I get it. At some point, you just get sick of every single description regardless of its accuracy. I think early on, when your music first reaches outside of your direct circle of friends and you start hearing feedback from magazines or an early semblance of a fanbase, it can be jarring. When you see it described on paper in a way that is completely foreign to everything you know about your own experience with it, you naturally think, “Am I doing something wrong?” I tried to learn that nobody will ever have the same experience with these songs as I do. I think the quicker you accept that, the sooner you feel ok about doing your thing regardless of if anyone “gets it.” The alternative is literally changing what you would’ve done naturally and that kinda defeats the purpose.
If the Ian from 2016 could go back to the Ian in 1997, what advice would he give to the then budding emcee?
Jeez, I really don’t know. In some ways, any of the things I’d warn myself about are kinda unavoidable anyway. I think though, if I’m honest, with turning 40 in a few months, I more than ever wonder what’s next for me. I don’t really feel done and I don’t know that I’ll ever stop writing songs, but I do wonder how long I can be up on stage, touring, doing press, etc. Either I’m gonna get completely sick of it or the people will finally be done with me, or I’ll lose the plot and fall off completely, but at some point I’m gonna have to figure out what’s next. So in some ways, I’d tell myself to keep that in mind. But you know what, it wouldn’t have mattered because I have been hearing that kinda shit forever about many of my decisions, including art school, rap career, etc. I mean, a lot these choices you just make because it seems like a cool experience and you’ll figure the rest out later. I hope.
How do you like living in Portland?
Portland is picturesque and green, and it’s allowed me to live way cheaper than I had been for years while simultaneously being pretty productive with my music. It actually rains less than I thought it would and I don’t really mind when it does anyway. I’ve also gotten back on my skateboard a ton because of this town and that’s a good thing. All that said, it’s not necessarily a place I feel completely at home in. It’s always been a temporary destination for me so I haven’t fully made much of an attempt to get too involved. Ultimately, I’ll most likely end up back east at some point.
I almost feel like “Rings” is some of the most straight forward lyrics you’ve written in awhile. Was that a conscious decision? I mean, there’s stuff still rooted in metaphor, but it’s easier to decipher than some of your other stuff.
It wasn’t really a conscious decision. So much of what has happened over the years is that I’ll go make a bunch of songs and not many people will hear them. I’ll just kinda do my thing and not really think too much about how it’s taking shape, try to let it just come out. Then I’ll finally play it for someone and they’ll say something similar to what you just said, “This is the most _____ music you’ve ever made.” And it’s always surprising—not because it’s not true, but more because I’m too close to it to even notice that kinda thing. I just kinda go and go and go, and then one day someone tells me what I did. That said, yeah, I guess I can see that. I really like it all; the super cryptic stuff, the super straight-forward stuff—any of it can be fly to me if done well.
Where do you write the majority of your lyrics? Do you prefer one environment over another?
Nah. With beats, I’m always sitting in the same place, but lyrics for me are the kinda thing that happens any and everywhere. There’s not much control over that stuff for me. It just comes and goes, and I gotta be ready to write something down when it happens. I think I treat beat-making more like a job—get up, sit down, work for hours, and see what happens. Lyrics are just like, if I feel it happening, I need to get it down on the page because it could disappear as quickly as it came on.
If you had to tell somebody about The Impossible Kid, what would you say?
I guess for me, The Impossible Kid is me closing in on 40 and just going over it all. It feels sorta reflective in the sense of going through some childhood memories, some family stuff, some friend stuff, some music stuff, some moments of being baffled by the youth of today, and just coping with getting older. I kinda feel like turning 40 is a very specific thing in our society. It somehow holds more weight than any other age, even though in some ways it’s pretty arbitrary. For whatever reason, it’s the age that we are officially old. Maybe because if we’re lucky, it’s the halfway point. In your 30s, you can kinda still pretend to be young, but there’s not much pretending at 40. It’s the age that looms more than any other. So yeah, this is the sound of me sliding into 40.