Aesop Rock raps his life fables in Cincinnati

Photo: Ian Bavitz, who performs under the moniker Aesop Rock, takes on Cincy July 16; photo: Ben Colen

By Alan Sculley

As Aesop Rock tours behind his latest album, The Impossible Kid, he realizes, 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, whose real name is Ian Bavitz, says. “It’s actually pretty disheartening. Sure—you could name me a handful of older rappers that still do it—fine. 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.’”

What might work in Aesop’s favor is he is still a fairly fresh face, at least when it comes to the hip-hop mainstream. He didn’t just burst onto the scene with a major label deal and an initial breakout hit or two. Instead, Aesop spent much of his career in indie/underground rap circles.

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 then surfaced on the Rhymesayers label in 2011, collaborating with producer/rapper and former Def Jux labelmate Rob Sonic in the group Hail Mary Mallon before his next solo album, Skelethon, arrived a year later. That album debuted at 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 says 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,” he says. “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 shit. 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 as he attempts to figure out who he is as a person and how he got to where he is now. Some of the lyrics are fairly straightforward, a surprise considering Aesop has had 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, OK, what now?” he explains. “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 Aesop’s rapping and beats than a focal point for the tracks.

Aesop has spent a good part of 2017 touring and is back now for a run headlining shows in support of The Impossible Kid.

“The set will remain similar—heavy on The Impossible Kid stuff, with a handful of oldies, some Mallon, some Rob Sonic,” Aesop says 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.”

Aesop Rock performs Sunday, July 16 at Bogart’s, 2621 Vine St. in Cincinnati. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22.50 in advance. For tickets or more information, please call 513.872.8801 or visit Bogarts.com.

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Alan Sculley
Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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