Is Aesop Rock still fresh at forty?

Photo: Ben Colen
Photo: Ben Colen

Nearly two decades after adding lyrical introspection and a literary sensibility to underground rap with his 2007 debut Music for Earthworms, New York rapper Aesop Rock’s ongoing Hey Kirby Tour isn’t on any kind of victory lap.

In April, Aesop Rock released his seventh and possibly most personal LP, The Impossible Kid, which combines his legendary free-association word play with a new honesty about his clinical depression.

And now, newly forty, Aesop could easily be on a nostalgia tour pumping cuts from Labor Days and Float – classics of the 2000s underground scene – and he’d still sell out shows like he did on Monday night at Venue.

Instead the New York rapper was airing new grievances on the Vancouver leg of the tour, and while evolved, it was anything but aged. Monday’s set was peppered with such self-effacing asides to Aesop’s waning years.

“The future is amazing / I feel so fucking old,” he raps in ‘Lotta Years’: “You shoulda seen me in the nineties, I could ollie up a curb.”

While the second half of the set eventually saw Aesop dip into golden-age material, songs like “Daylight” and “No Regrets” which he wrote in his twenties were clearly for the benefit of a primed audience. The 2000s, as they say, are the new nineties, and Aesop’s present interests are in mining the psychic archaeology of his middle age, not so much dusting off the nostalgic trophies of his youth.

But lotta years come with a lot of baggage, and for an artist known for weaving dense tapestries of verbal abstraction, Aesop Rock seems most comfortable in his latter-day posture of frank self-analysis and deprecation.

When you start getting all exact and algebraic / I’m reminded it’s a racket, not a rehabilitation,” he tells his imaginary psychiatrist in ‘Shrunk.’

A cross section of Monday night’s audience is telling of these conflicting strains where put-upon beatniks mingled with inebriated biker types and scenester hangers-on who at every lull between songs hurled a barrage of non sequiturs. 

“Appleseed!”

“Babies with guns!

“Daylight!”

“No regrets!”

A voice sprang out of the din: “play anything you want!”

“I’ve haven’t heard that one before,” Aesop chuckled. This anonymous gesture of west-coast courtesy couldn’t have left a doubt what city he was in.

Of the handful of Aesop Rock shows I’ve been to, this is the first time I’ve seen his confidence in the new material overtake the comfortable acceptance of his golden-era status. And I can’t remember seeing him this genuinely excited to be on stage.

If it took a lot of years of therapy to get to this point, The Impossible Kid is Aesop’s prognosis report of what’s to come.

“Will you be needing another appointment?” he asks the Vancouver audience in his role as hip-hop’s head shrinker, and not just its laconic elder statesman.

The audience’s response came on the downbeat: “Absolutely!”