Aesop Rock has always sounded like New York.
He and his Definitive Jux clique defined the Big Apple's rap underground in the early 2000s, delivering intricately woven stories told with unmatched agility and a bottomless vocabulary over sprawling, industrial production that seemed to reflect the rhythms of the city itself.
But any place can grow stifling after a while. So, at age 31, the MC born Ian Bavitz uprooted himself and came west. Shaken by a personal tragedy and a looming sense of complacency, he wanted to challenge himself, to see if he could continue to grow and mature as an artist in an unfamiliar environment.
That's how he wound up living in a barn in rural Oregon.
"I lost a best friend in '08, but it seemed like once a year since then I've had some adversity in my life that prevented me from ever really getting fully on my feet," Rock says. "It just hit a point where it felt like one thing after another. I rented a barn for a year just to kind of clear my head, live cheap and try to be creative."
In that barn—and in Portland, where he quietly spent another year retooling—life finally settled long enough for Rock to collect his thoughts. As a result, his new album, The Impossible Kid, may be his most personal and inward-looking work yet. It took a few years, but it seems leaving New York to live untied along the West Coast paid off.
"I've been able to see if I could take this homegrown craft and really apply it even when my surroundings continue to change," says the 39-year-old Long Island-born wordsmith. "In some ways it has kept [my writing] from getting stale, but I also don't have that security blanket of being in my comfort zone."
Naturally, The Impossible Kid finds Rock in an introspective mood. "Ultimately, the stuff I was writing was fairly reflective, possibly a side effect of looking down the barrel of 40 years on this planet," he says. "I think I've just been thinking over my life a bunch and trying to write songs about it." That's evident on "Rings," the album's first official single, in which Rock addresses his younger self when he was a fresh-faced art-school graduate battling for purpose in a daunting city: "It's off to a school where it's all that you do/ Being trained and observed by a capable few/ Back in New York, five peeps and a dog/In a two-bedroom doing menial jobs."
But while four decades and seven albums may have weathered the underground heavyweight, he has yet to falter. Rock's most recent work may be his most ambitious, reflecting a curiosity and daring as potent as it was a decade ago. As with 2012's Skelethon, Rock produced every track on The Impossible Kid himself. As an artist and perfectionist, it's an empowering move. His style on boards is akin to that of Def Jux partner El-P and longtime collaborator Blockhead, full of feral synths and dynamic bass licks bolstered by weighty, corporal drums. Taking full rein of production heightens the stakes to eliminating any creative crutch that Rock might lean on. "If my name is on it, I want the listener to know that I really had my hand in almost every element of what you're hearing," he says. "I want to feel like I really crafted something."
Along with stretching the boundaries of his sound, Rock has begun to experiment visually as well. In the week leading up to The Impossible Kid's release last month, he offered fans a 48-minute album stream that plays as a soundtrack to a shot-for-shot, stop-motion re-creation of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The animation, directed by Rob Shaw of Portland's Bent Image Lab, acts as a warped representation of Aesop's life of late, as he retreated to the solitude of the Pacific Northwest in search of creative freedom. Unlike Jack Torrance, he didn't go insane and try to murder his family. Instead, he found a new perspective and breathed fresh energy into his art—and discovered that the only person he must answer to is himself.
"I wanted to be responsible for all the failures and successes I could come up with," he says, "so even if it was bad, it was me."
SEE IT: Aesop Rock plays Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell St., with Rob Sonic, DJ Zone and Homeboy Sandman, on Saturday, May 7. 9 pm. Sold out . All ages.