Legacy: The Mystery and Misunderstanding of Aesop Rock | Rap & Hip-Hop Amino (2023)

Ian Matthias Bavitz or better known as Aesop Rock is a legendary underground rapper. One of the biggest names in alternative and indie hip hop in the late 90s and 2000s. A man known for his huge vocabulary, incredible lyrical ability and being very abstract. This isn’t going to be a typical legacy breakdown. I’m not going to be talking about all of his albums in order or anything like that. Of course I will discuss his music and impact but in different ways than usual. My main goal is to figure out the reasons we keep coming back to his music. He’s so difficult to understand but we dissect and analyze whatever he puts out. Why do we care? What’s the reason for his coded language? Well that’s what I’m going to break down and find out. There’s more to this man that people don’t know about. An emotional side he tries to hide from the world and himself. This isn’t just a breakdown of the rapper but the person himself. This is The Mystery and Misunderstanding of Aesop Rock. Enjoy.

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Early Years

1. Childhood/Love For Hip Hop

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• I feel it’s important to talk about his childhood and upbringing to bring context to he abstract language. Aesop was raised in Long Island, New York and lived in a Catholic household with both of his parents. His brother is a professor at Harvard Law school while Aesop attended Boston University in Massachusetts. He got his bachelors degree in visual arts in 1998. While in college Aesop met legendary producer Blockhead who heard Aesop freestyle and convinced him to become a rapper. Blockhead wanted to focus more on the production side. Before Aesop started rapping he had a number of weird jobs. He answered phones for clothing catalogs, packaging artwork in art gallery storerooms and working for one-hour photo developers. When he was young in New York he would listen to hip hop and started to love the culture. He started to rap in the early 90s and states his biggest influences were Public Enemy, KMD, BDP and Run DMC. He also listened to punk rock and rock like the Dead Kennedy’s, Fugazzi and Ministry. His older brother Chris introduced him to a lot of this music. Obviously Aesop grew up in a household with intelligent people. With members of his family going to Harvard. He also played instruments like pianos and bass at an early age. Aesop had great musical talent, a passion for rapping and artistic vision. Then in 1997 everything started to change for him.

Music Career Part 1: 1997- 2007

So I’m not going to go through each album and go into detail. I want to explain and figure out what people thought of Aesop’s music during this time period. Also how his first half of his career is different from the second half in terms of personal moments and emotional vulnerability.

1. The Start of Indie Rap/Rise of Aesop Rock

•Around this time period we saw the rise of a different kind of rapper. This was the point where mainstream and underground were completely separated. New alternative and abstract started coming up like Kool Keith, El-P, Busdriver etc... However no one was more abstract lyrically than Aesop Rock. With his debut album, “Music For Earthworms” people were absolutely stunned by what they heard. A rapper who had such dense and esoteric lyrical ability that it was really difficult to figure out what he was actually talking about. For most people it was too weird and abstract for them but the other side really loved his music. No just because he sounded different from everyone else but he sounded so great and his flows were so unique that it blew the hip hop nerds away. Even if you didn’t know what Aesop was saying half of the time, you could see the message he was trying to convey. He was talking about unique topics not discussed in hip hop. He would talk about weird things but in such a creative way. Now in the very beginning of his career he was respected for his lyrical ability but he had problems with his low quality production and putting too many songs on his albums. He knew had to rap very well but he didn’t know how to make great songs yet. This was an issue with his first two albums, “Music For Earthworms” and “Float.” However the perception started to change when he signed to Def Jux and released his first album “Labor Days.” He blew up in the underground after this album. An album that has really accessible production and a great concept based around work. Even though the lyrics were still dense and abstract, people were able to understand the ideas and messages he tried to present for the most part. This album had great success and more people and critics thought he would go for a more accessible sound and try to be more direct with later albums. Then came Bazooka Tooth...

2. Critical Backlash

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• When Bazooka Tooth was released this was Aesop at his most lyrically dense and least vulnerable. This album was basically Aesop talking about his difficulty being famous and how he’s struggling to adapt. Now at the time people tore this album apart from fans and critics. People hated the weird clunky beats and very abstract flows and lyrics. Even though he was talking about emotions he wasn’t being relatable to other people. This point of his career he didn’t talk about his personal stories in a clear cut way. So whenever he did talk about an emotion he was feeling he made it so difficult for people to understand that he wouldn’t feel embarrassed for showing an actual emotion. He was being very protective of himself. Critics really tore this album apart. Some critics called the beats on this album lazy, lethargic and restrained. Another critic said that Aesop’s rapping wasn’t good and he wasn’t even rapping on beat. A critic from Pop Matters said this “Bazooka Tooth is almost a textbook example of what happens when a previously struggling artist gets a handful of success". Critics and fans alike thought he was going back to making his albums so weird that it wasn’t enjoyable like he did on “Labor Days.” Aesop was very misunderstood at this time. People were trying to put him in a box and wanted him to make an album that had more accessible beats and lyrics that weren’t too abstract. So why did he decide to change? Maybe he didn’t want to appeal to a larger audience because he didn’t like the thought of being in the spotlight. He cared about making music he wanted to make. He’s obviously someone who cares about hip hop and addressing different political/social issues but had a fear of showing emotions. That’s a problem people had with Aesop in the first half of his career. Not personable and relatable enough or too abstract and weird. On his album “None Shall Pass” He did go back to a more accessible sound from the production side and this album was well received by fans. For me this album was way too safe and his least ambitious album to date. The great lyrical ability was still there but I wish it was more experimental. Still he didn’t dumb down his lyrics or go a more straight forward route. So the question is why did he never change his lyrical style. Well...

3. The Reason For His Abstract Lyrics and Large Vocabulary

• Now this Is the mysterious part of Aesop Rock. What’s the reason he uses such coded language. A rapper who doesn’t like the fame or to wear his emotions on his sleeve. People have criticized him his whole career for his lyrical style. There will always be haters complaining that his bars and verses don’t make sense. They think Aesop’s words don’t mean anything and he just puts large words together to seem like a good lyricist. Heres what Aesop Rock had to say about that in an interview:

“It’s probably because it’s not the most accessible music in the world. It may pose a slight challenge to the listener beyond your average pop song. I'm no genius by a long shot, but these songs are not nonsensical, that's pretty preposterous. I'd have to be a genius to pull this many nonsensical records over people's eyes. It's not exactly fast food but when people pretend I'm just spewing non-sequiturs and gibberish I can’t help but think they simply haven’t listened and are regurgitating some rumor they’ve heard about me. Even if it's not laid out in perfect sentences—is any rap?—you’d have to be an idiot to not at least grasp a few things from these songs. Or have had no interest in pulling anything from them in the first place."

•Now of course I heavily agree of what Aesop said about his lyrics. There’s no way he could get away of saying nonsensical things in his songs for 20 years. I do agree that people sometimes are too lazy to decipher lyrics and even if they don’t understand everything he’s saying they basically can figure out what the meaning of the song is. Now that doesn’t explain why he uses such abstract language but does give context to how Aesop feels about people perceiving his music as nonsensical. So some reasons I feel he uses this coded language is fear of being judged. So Aesop is obviously an intellectual and well educated human being. He could simplify his lyrics but I feel he enjoys using his dense vocabulary to stand out and for people to dissect and really understand what he’s trying to say. So the huge vocabulary is a mix of his intelligence, afraid to show emotion and a reason to stand out. He’s someone who wants to challenge himself and his audience. However during this period of time in the early 2000s he was also going through some serious personal issues.

4. Aesop’s Nervous Breakdown

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•Something that never gets talked about and a reason he never gets too personal is his nervous breakdown he had in 2001. It made him quit his first United States tour and go into isolation. He suffered from anxiety. In 2002 on his EP “Daylight” he released a song called “One of Four (Thank You).” It’s easily his most personal song during this time period. A song talking about in detail his nervous breakdown and the people who helped him through it. However he never planned on releasing this song to the public, just to his 4 close friends who he said saved his life. He did end up releasing the song but it was a hidden song on the EP. This was a surprisingly straight forward and personal track. He started revealing personal details about himself that he never did in his music before. He told people his name, date of birth, eye color, things he enjoys, names of his sibling and parents etc. He describes during this breakdown he was feeling nausea, dizziness and loss for motor sensory functions. He felt guilty and self loathing from closure he didn’t get in his life. He said therapy never worked for him and that he doesn’t know exactly why he had this breakdown. He thanks 4 people in the song for saving his life and being there for him. Most notably El-P and Blockhead which are his best friends. He describes how this was the worst time in his life. He would stay in his apartment afraid to leave the house and just smoke cigarettes all day for months. He also states that it’s hard to put his thoughts into words to thank his friends. Aesop usually uses such dense metaphors that it’s hard to be direct. Then he ends the song on a hard breaking and emotional note saying pretty much without these 4 people in his life to help him he might have killed himself by overdosing on drugs. This is a very powerful and emotional track. A song that showed Aesop could display is real emotions but at the same time maybe it’s the reason he can’t show his emotions. He’s just too afraid to be direct and personal. That’s something people have criticized him on. With this knowledge it makes sense why he released “Bazooka Tooth” after this song. He was tired of the spotlight and people not leaving him alone but still wanting to make music for his fans. I feel like his personal demons and depression are some of the reason he cannot be direct and emotionally vulnerable. Sadly people don’t recognize or understand at all. There’s a lot more emotional depth to Aesop and he definitely showed that the second half of his career.

Music Career Part 2: 2008-2019

1. The Hiatus/The Return

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•Between the years 2007-2012 was probably the biggest point in Aesop’s career where he didn’t release any music. His label Def Jux was disbanded and he had to find a new label. He did do some producing and features during this time but never released solo material. Then in 2008 a huge emotional hit happened when his best friend and music legend Camu Tao died from cancer. Here’s what he had to say about it:

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•Another emotional and heartbreaking moment for him. So with so many different things going on in his life personally and his career situation, it’s definitely understandable why he took a break from releasing material. Then around 2011 he announced he was working on a solo album and was going to sign with the legendary underground hip hop label RhymeSayers. There was a lot of pressure on Aesop. Fans expected for him to release a great project since they loved “None Shall Pass” so much and that he took awhile to release new music. Then in 2012 he released “Skelethon.” One of his most dense and weirdest albums to date. An album that reminds me a lot of “Bazooka Tooth.” Not that it sounds like it but it’s totally weird and very dense. The production isn’t very catchy or accessible. In my opinion I think it’s an incredible album and displayed all the reasons that I love Aesop. Dense lyrics and song topics, crazy beats and weird flows. It’s an album that takes a lot to unpack but once you get all the concepts it makes the album so much better. I feel this album is enjoyed by fans but not cherished like his older albums. For me personally it’s one of his most underrated albums. However it did prove to people that he was on top of his game. I also should mention that he divorced his wife at around this time. Something that probably affected him emotionally. He never really talked about it and this album at the time didn’t really discuss what he was going through. However in 2016 that started to change.

2. A New Aesop Rock/The Impossible Kid

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•This was something no one saw coming. About 4 years later he was releasing another album. Of course no one new what to expect. You never know what Aesop was going to give you. Is it going to be another weird inaccessible album or one with more accessible producing and lyrical content. What he ended up giving us is his most personal album to date. Now this was very surprising. This was a side of him we have rarely seen from him. He showed glimpses in the past but never in a full length album. Aesop really goes through a lot of personal things going on in his life. Fear of growing old, not relating to the younger generation, depression, going to the shrink, talking about his brothers, attacking the hip hop media, his childhood and even death. Not every song is dark, some are very sill too like “Kirby” where he gets a cat and describes what he does throughout the day. Anyway people loved this side of Aesop. Many people call it his best album to date. Not only because there’s personal stories but Aesop is more straight forward and relatable. The beats are catchier and more fun to listen to. I personally don’t think it’s his best album but I do think it’s him most important album. What I mean by that is I see this album as a huge moment in the growth of Aesop Rock as a rapper and human being. I think since he’s gotten older he’s been able to open up more and finally having the courage to talk about personal issues is difficult to do. Especially someone as guarded as Aesop is. On this album he tells you how he’s feeling right now in each aspect of his life. I also love how he dedicated this album to his best friend Camu Tao. He addresses his depression of losing Camu on the song “Get Out of the Car.” Its one of his most emotional and poignant tracks to date. I love everything about this album. He showed so many different emotions and personal stories that let you know more about Aesop’s personal life and what’s going on in his mind. This is the album everyone wanted from Aesop and he delivered.

3. Today/Malibu Ken

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•So where could Aesop go from there. After his release of The Impossible Kid he stayed pretty quiet. He did some producing and released his first film soundtrack for Bushwick in 2017. Then at the end of 2018 he announced a collaborative album with producer Tobacco called “Malibu Ken.” This Self-Titled album came out this year. Now this isn’t a solo Aesop album or as ambitious as his other releases but this is still an interesting and fantastic album. It’s another album that’s more direct and Aesop tells you what’s going on in his personal life. He talks about putting on a fake face everyday when he faces the world. A fake persona who’s perfect on the outside but irritated, disgusting and alone on the inside. He has to put on this persona when he’s dealing with his neighbors, trying to clean his gross apartment or trying to get away from the Spotlight. He also tells different stories like he always does. He tells a story of of Ricky Casso who killed his Gf in the early 80s where Aesop grew up. Then he talks about other things like comparing rapper to magicians. Basically saying that a rapper will pull an illusion like a magician by selling their terrible music to them and making it seem like it’s good. So overall this album is basically things going on in Aesop’s day to day life or different and random stories about interesting people and topics. It’s a short album but it’s another release that shows a more personal side of Aesop. Some interesting topics talking about things he’s dealing with. He obviously still has a problem with fame, depression and isolation but with these last two albums he’s finally able to address it to the public and inform the listener with what’s going on in his life. It’s a side of Aesop I would for him to keep doing on his next albums. Aesop is still releasing music at a high level and is still on top of his game.

The Legacy

1. Why Aesop Rock is Misunderstood?

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• So why do I feel he’s misunderstood? Well going through his entire career and listening to him for a long time, it’s pretty clear that Aesop Rock doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s done in his career and that he’s more than a rapper with a large vocabulary. That’s the biggest issue I have with critics of Aesop. People judge him for having indistinguishable and incomprehensible lyrics, even though they don’t take the time to analyze is metaphors, song topics and ideas. It’s obvious that most people who don’t understand what he’s saying just are so quick to dismiss what he’s done in his career. They don’t realize the time, effort, hard work and emotion he puts into everything he writes. This is a man who’s been putting out quality music for more than 20 years. Regardless if you don’t enjoy his voice or production he raps over, at least give him the credit he deserves when it comes to his rapping ability. And not just his crazy vocabulary but his storytelling, flows, concepts and interesting song topics. The misconception rap fans and critics have is that Aesop is just a rapper who uses big words and that’s it. That’s just not true. He’s someone who can make great songs and unique concepts. He can make catchy songs and emotional songs. He’s someone that addresses important political and social issues. There are so many areas where Aesop exceeds but people are too narrow minded to look deeper into this mans music. The more you decipher his lyrics and metaphors, the more you’ll understand about the human being. You can learn life lessons from him and learn that behind all the metaphors and weird symbolism there’s a man who has his faults and imperfections. A man who’s had trouble with depression, anxiety, nervous breakdowns, and isolation. So before you dismiss Aesop Rock and label him as just a rapper with a big vocabulary. Remember that there’s a man with a lot of emotional depth. It may be difficult to find but once you do, you become so much more invested with him.

2. How Should Aesop Rock Be Remembered?

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• Sadly how should he be remembered and how will be remembered are very different in my opinion. I think he will be remembered as one of the best lyricists of all time from underground fans even though there’s people who are quick to dismiss his lyrics as not understandable. Someone who helped the indie rap movement of the early 90s and 2000s. A guy with a larger vocabulary than Shakespeare and someone who pushed the lyrical boundaries. However for me personally he should be remembered as one of the greatest rappers of all time. Of course his lyrical ability is undeniable but he has so many other great qualities as a rapper. His storytelling, album concepts, song topics, dense flows, and just unique ideas that push the genre forward. This is a man who is ahead of his time and changed the way people looked at rap music. Someone who can put words and ideas together like no other. He has groundbreaking, innovative and creative albums that the genre has never seen before. He’s put out amazing albums and songs for 20 years. He’s someone who continues to try and get better, and master his craft at the highest level. Aesop is someone I have idolized for a long time. I have learned so many life lessons, new ideas, new perspectives and new words. Every time I listen to an Aesop album or song I know I’m always going to learn something new. An idea or concept that I’ve never thought about before. So before you disregard Aesop as too lyrical, abstract or weird. Just remember he’s someone who loves the genre and has never cheated his fans. He puts 100% effort into all of his projects. Yes I know his music isn’t for everybody but he still deserves more credit. He’s changed the genre in so many ways. So overall Aesop Rock should be known for more than his lyrics. This guy is an all around and overall amazing rapper. One of these best to ever rap and should be know not just as an amazing rapper but an artist. He’s an artist who has made masterpieces that will be cherished forever.


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