This story was originally published by the Chico News & Review on Nov. 24, 2016.
“Question: If I died in my apartment like a rat in a cage/Would the neighbors smell the corpse before the cat ate my face?”
This is Aesop Rock, his words blistering over an eerie, atonal guitar riff on “Dorks,” a cut off his seventh studio album, The Impossible Kid. It’s an unsettling sum of elements. If the record were a house, it’d be haunted—piano disturbs dust in the attic, chopped-up guitars lurch around the garage, something heavy bumps in the basement, and spooky UFO-synthesizers hover outside the bedroom window.
Lyrically, Aesop Rock isn’t just macabre, he’s a virtuoso with a lickety-split delivery and one of the broadest vocabularies of any rapper alive. In 2014, data scientist Matt Daniels analyzed the lyrics of 85 popular rappers and found that, not only does Aesop Rock use more unique words than his contemporaries, but his songs also display a greater lexicon than Shakespeare plays and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
He doesn’t necessarily sit down and study a dictionary, but Aesop says he does try to expand his knowledge of the English language.
“If I hear a word I don’t know and it sounds interesting, I wanna know about it,” he said. “Especially as a rapper, so much of what I’m doing is finding the right words to bounce off each other.”
The 40-year-old MC’s real name is Ian Bavitz, and he got his start as an underground rapper in New York in the 1990s. He’s since developed a cult following, joined vaunted indie-rap label Rhymesayers Entertainment and relocated to Portland, Ore., where he remains obscure from the mainstream. He talked shop with the CN&R via email ahead of his show at the Senator Theatre in Chico on Dec. 2.
“As my taste and interests evolve, so does my music,” he wrote. “I just make what comes natural. I don’t think about how it’s gonna be received—to be honest, I don’t even realize it’s gonna be out there when I’m doing it. I don’t wanna be thinking about the latest trend, or if I’m too old, or if this song is the ‘one.’ I just wanna go.”
Most of the songs on The Impossible Kid are certifiable bangers. As a producer, Aesop achieves a great range of tone and plays with all sorts of funny noises. Some of the beats are simple and hit hard, like one on “Shrunk” that conjures an image of monsters crushing cities. Others are dark swirls of bouncing Jell-O effects and abstract samples (“Kirby” and “Supercell”). All of the sounds are crisp and fluid.
“‘Dorks’ and a lot of my stuff is built from a combination of sources,” he said. “The main guitar riff was played by my friend Wes, but it was a … different tempo, pitch, etc. I have a couple friends who will let me sample them knowing full well that it’s not gonna sound like it did. The way my brain works, I’d much rather sample it and change the pitch and chop it up and make it different.”
It’s a frenetic approach to production that matches his lyrical style. The concepts in “Dorks” are fractured and seemingly unrelated until it’s suddenly, clearly about chest-thumping rappers: “I view the rattling of sabers like a show to expose/Insecurities exploding in emotional code/When braggadocio to go from mostly jokey to gross/Corrode a homie ’til his probity is notably ghost.”
The dictionary defines “probity” as “uprightness; honesty,” which suggests he doesn’t think much of his flashy peers. Aesop explained: “It’s just about watching [rappers] take the playful and beautiful and sarcastic and rich braggadocio that comes with a lot of rap music and letting it seep into their being until they’ve bought into every comical exaggeration they ever imagined for themselves.
“People take themselves too serious. Shit is silly.”