Seemingly thematically-rigid songs are at their most effective when the theme acts as a general direction rather than a crutch. Weaving in and out of the beckoning surface of a topic requires dexterity and a keen sense of timing for artists to achieve a healthy balance of intrigue and exploration. It is not a coincidence that rappers’ default mode is one not shackled by an overarching blueprint keeping them in check. Though there’s liberation in structure it is not handed over casually. Structure demands technique and an iterative process. Refinement has value because it’s not suspended by the branches most dutifully proximate to the ground. Both technique and iteration are intensely labouring and often act as a hurdle to fruitfulness. In an era when being prolific is practically synonymous with relevance (despite this arguably reaching its peak in the previous decade) a looser approach to songwriting is predictably preferred.
However, this is not exactly a binary state of affairs. Proficiency allows for faithfulness to a topic without telegraphing your next step a bar away. On ‘Reasonable Doubt’ Jay Z was at his best at executing exactly this. ‘Regrets’ is a straightforward enough song on the outset but he carried out his three-pronged approached well with the insertion of certain words or phrases in key moments that elevated his verses to a mythology-feeding level. Accommodating for the possibility of your own father currently residing in hell and hoping that perhaps he can make it a little homely for your impending arrival is the sort of uncommon spice that can lift a couplet and consequently an entire verse.
An abrupt transition to the present brings me to Aesop Rock’s new album ‘The Impossible Kid’. There are more than a few reviews available online already that do a fair job at dissecting the album and outlining its key elements. Instead I’ll mainly be focusing on three songs: ‘Rings’, ‘Dorks’ and ‘Molecules’.
Regret is far from uncommon a theme for songwriters and in fact Aesop Rock himself visited the topic on his album ‘Labor Days’. Lucy, the heroine on ‘No Regrets’, however, is a stark contrast to the hero of ‘Rings’, presumably Aesop Rock himself since the song is sung in first person. Lucy lived her life devoted to drawing and resolutely renounced socializing and any feelings of embarrassment at the chatter painting her as weird or abnormal.
‘Rings’ sees the Long Island native set the song out with what he no longer does. As we age we numerate things that we used to do with a dosage of nostalgia refusing to curtail its swell as time moves on. This is not limited to things we once drew enjoyment from, sadly, but it is the case here. The song’s beginning stages are almost a perfect parallel to Lucy’s childhood: a sense of not belonging, escapism, hermetism, creation, satisfaction unshared but intensely real.
Things tend to go askew though. Talents pushed to the side and left to rot, practice-born enjoyment morosely bound and stuffed in a depressingly deep crevice inside us. Distractions are a formidable enemy solely for their ability to seem benign and impermanent. But they are ever-mutating and self-perpetuating. A dream deferred is a sad thing, yes, but it has an uncanny strength: to linger and to haunt us. A lack of closure can be acrid but it is a dream’s last resort when clinging on for dear life. The allure of completion is a means to existence for the intangible.
The state of fandom is currently at a peculiar crossroads yet the fundamentals remain the same. Adulation, wonder, dislike, hatred, disregard. All of these will always remain options in a listener’s mostly involuntary arsenal of reactions. Indeed the length of time these are permitted a lungful of life seems to have been butchered down to nothing, yet they do manifest nonetheless. Outsiders of any scene will inadvertently elevate creators because they do not posses the means by which to see the fashioning of cogs and their subsequent synchronized gymnastics. The creative process is stashed away behind an opaque barricade. Some are interested in the deconstruction of the final product but even they often wilfully turn a blind eye to the grittier aspects of it. We all need something tall and grand and extraordinary to gaze upon. We allow giants to exist unscathed by the scimitars of our cynicism so that we can frolic in the recessed land embossed with their footprints.
Once inside the tent, however, perspective becomes unwarped and the tendency to be casual with the deficiencies of your peers is inversely proportional to the level of success they manage to attain. Humans respond to a sense of injustice the way a slug responds to a shower of salt, only the caustic effect is internal, gradual and longer-lasting. On ‘Dorks’ Aesop Rock channels the type of anger that can only stem from sustained bewilderment. The failed cult leader who built a story so deeply intricate it not only failed to gather momentum, but also worked against him by inadvertently highlighting a rap version of L. Ron Hubbard’s shoddy craftwork through juxtaposition. A rivalry amongst kooks where the least revered is left to wonder why.
A somewhat conciliatory remark finds itself wedged amidst the ire and repudiation. The acknowledgement that all rappers are eccentrics seeking a sheltering niche to nestle into.
Even those of us with disdain always sharpened and fixed at our own throats often tend to glorify our profession, our chosen field, the activity we have devoted time to. Self-deprecation is not exclusive from the deification of our cohorts. Artists are no different and can fall victim to overestimating the true power of a one-liner spat out with intent. It all depends on what the artists expects to happen, of course. Self-aggrandizing verbiage aimed to shift a few more crates of overpriced t-shirts is not akin to finding El Dorado in terms of difficulty level.
Convincing the masses to subject themselves to the sharp jump of a seismic societal shift with only a pair of well-worked verses in your toolbox is a somewhat less likely path to successful accomplishment. However, perhaps an approach coursing through belief, creation and disappointment is a somewhat more fruitful mindset than one eschewing the first two parts.
The touring indie artist is a self-made refugee with moderately good chances of successful repatriation. The city running backwards from you will eventually come back. That’s what the round earth theory purports anyway.
Constant movement births a trying set of circumstances. Loneliness, instability, the vanity of attachment and old-fashioned discomfort blend together as a formidable ode to toxicity. The grind demands respect, both from those engaged in it as well as from those who witness it from afar.
It’s at the final third of the song when Aesop Rock breaks down the relationship between the listener and the artist’s strife. It’s a topic often discussed with a healthy amount of selfishness. We want our artists to suffer and we tend to move on when they’re happy and content. It’s tragicomic and nasty.
It’s tremendously burdensome to be able to identify this phenomenon as an artist. Imagine seeing people react to and enjoy music expressly crafted to communicate darkness. Your mind begins to doubt whether bliss should be concealed or even dismissed altogether for fear of dispelling the crowd that took so much effort to amass.
The final line is pointed at us and with good cause. We cheer for our artists when their snout is firmly pressed to the scummy gutter of a tortuous life path yet avert our collective gazes the moment they’re lucky enough to better their lives. It’s as if we don’t deserve the candour.