On his excellent new album, Aesop Rock plays with autobiography as a construction. Rock tells some version of his story brilliantly here, and it doesn't matter what is and isn't fact; it all rings true anyway.
Late in Don Cheadle's Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, Davis (played by Cheadle) responds to an interviewer's question with a single note from his trumpet. When asked to put that note into words, Davis shrugs and says, essentially, "you just did". Davis, in life and in his autobiography, was thorny and evasive, preferring to build mythology rather than to let people know him. Maybe he thought that was what the music was for. Cheadle's film knows this, and prefers mythology over history at nearly every turn (and it works).
Like Cheadle and Davis, Aesop Rock clearly realizes that autobiography is not inalienable truth. It's definitely not fact; rather, it's a construction, one whose shape can be as telling as its content. Aesop Rock's work has been slowly morphing into something resembling a form of autobiography. On Skelethon, you could hear details that felt personal, that seemed to rise up like sturdy weeds out of the cracks of Rock's history. Now, four years later, The Impossible Kid digs even further into those details. To say that it's more autobiographical seems to miss the point, but it certainly has a focus on story and on the past (two elements that previous albums have obscured).
What makes the album remarkable, though, is not that we finally get the real Aesop Rock. What's amazing is that someone who has long been one of the finest and most difficult lyricists in hip-hop has now hit a high-water mark as not just a lyricist, but also as a songwriter and producer. The tones, beats, hooks, and endless variations and rhyming patterns are all here, and they come off as just as volatile and, perhaps, even more immediate than anything Aesop Rock has made to date.
The Impossible Kid digs into some serious questions about identity. "Rings", the album's first single, finds Rock lamenting the time he (or his narrator) gave up visual art even though it was "tangible truth for a youth who refused to belong". Then, in "Later Years", he compares tattoos awkwardly with a guy in a Baskin Robbins and admires a woman's dreadlocks as she works at a local juice bar. Rock himself remembers when his skateboarding chops were stronger (when he felt younger). Both songs wonder over outlets—especially artistic ones—as ways to escape but also ways to define yourself or at least present yourself to the world. Though Aesop Rock drew and skateboarded before going full into hip-hop (he's since come back to both of those pastimes), it doesn't matter if these are true stories. What matters is they tap into both an isolation and a bridge back to community, even if it expressing themselves doesn't always alleviate the self-doubt.
Aesop Rock seems to have made peace with these regrets—the I should have drawn more or the I should have skated more—but they're not the only ones he delves into here. "Blood Sandwich" tells the story of two brothers, one younger and one older. The younger brother goes through a traumatic but almost absurd Little League experience, while the older takes a stand against parents that won't let him go see Ministry. "Just in case of rough waters", Rock says in the hook, "I want to put one up for my brothers". You can feel the distance between then and now, especially as he claims that he hasn't seen his older brother in a while. Later in the record, he lament the loss of "Mu" (likely referring to late rapper Camu Tao) over a lonesome run of guitar chords. "Shrunk" puts Rock's narrator on a psychiatrist's couch, seemingly to work through all the baggage woven through these other stories, the stuff that keeps this album version of him tied to the past. He fights the process—"She says I'm not your enemy / I said that sounds like something that my enemy would say instead of playing off the chemistry"—as he finds truth in symbols and she claims that keeps him from an "honest diagnostic".
The Impossible Kid, however, would argue otherwise. The album sifts through the past, though stories about brothers and lingering anxieties and a home life haunted by religion, through the mythologies we come up with as kids ("Defender") or the ways an isolated kid can find solace. But it also brings us up to now. "Dorks" takes on Aesop Rock's seemingly solitary present, sometimes worrying over it and sometimes feeling pleased to have retreated from circles like, say, the rappers he once spent time around. "I know some shit about your heroes that you wouldn't believe", Rock asserts, but he veers away from typical hip-hop beef and braggadocio and toward more self-directed questions about what a scene means to individuality, about the sometimes isolating nature of making art, and about how to be a voice in a scene without having to be an extroverted part of it.
Eventually, The Impossible Kid shows this album version of Aesop Rock finding his place, accepting advice from rap legends like Chuck D, and "[coming] to terms with [his] lazy eye". As an album, the record balances beautifully the representation of anxiety and isolation, as well as the confidence of perspective and experience. The production here hints at nostalgia, with the occasional 8-bit console blip, yet it always ends up in a here-and-now energy. From the mean bass line of "Supercell" and the swampy synths of "Kirby", to the chilly long notes on closer "Molecules", these tight beats are as full of careful details as Rock's lyrics, not to mention just as tightly delivered. The album ends not with a sense that we know Aesop Rock better, but with new ideas about the relationships between the past and the present (with the notion that we might not always let go but rather we might just get a comfortable grip on what we have to carry). In other words, it might not feel so heavy if you look at it right. In the end, The Impossible Kid—that past version of us with all its hurt and flaws and potential—isn't a victim, and it isn't gone. The Impossible Kid is still here, and Aesop Rock tells his story brilliantly. It doesn't matter if it's based in fact or not; it rings true anyway.