I walked into the Blue Moose on Monday toward the end of Sandman’s set, listening to him close with what sounded like a prayer before prefacing the onset of Aesop Rock, whom he compared to Mozart as the pinnacle of creativity in the twenty-first century. Although I had never attended a rap performance before, I had become acquainted with Aesop Rock over the past months, listening with an increasing appreciation to the way that his lyrics were able to provide a meditation over an instrumental backing that was as masterful as his rhymes. Sandman’s praise is standard for most openers, but in this case matches with the well-deserved critical acclaim Aesop Rock has received over the past two decades of recording and performance.
Renowned for his mastery of the English language and literally off the charts for the number of unique words used in his body of work, Aesop Rock’s lyrics provide a tapestry that rivals Shakespeare or Melville for intensity and density. These words, delivered with an absolute and confident fluid style, hover in the middle of dense bass and impressive instrumentation.
Most of the music is set in minor keys, providing an air of mourning that offsets the often bouncy sounds of drum and bass. The experience of the set was akin to being lost in an audio recording of Finnegan’s Wake or Moby Dick, with an incredible juxtaposition of concepts and contexts. Everything has a home: God and death, popular culture and pets, money and hatred, loneliness and absurdity. It was a chaotic tapestry of the nobility and fallibility of human existence, an encyclopedic compendium of the absurdity of our lives, breathed out at a breakneck speed with clear enunciation and an easy smile that seemed to betray that we were in on the fact that life is a joke without a punchline.
The performance itself was an absolute marvel to behold, as Aesop Rock (born Ian Bavitz) moved across the stage, making eye contact with fans, engaging them to listen from their depths. Rob Sonic, performing alongside him, was more than competent but allowed Aesop Rock to display his absolute mastery of the craft. Although Sonic never stumbled he seemed more depleted by the effort than Aesop Rock, whose flawless delivery was ongoing and offered by an engaging grin.
The audience was continually engaged with a call and response that seemed an expected aside to please us, but these were often the least genuine moments that I saw from the rapper. He was most engaged, most honest as he performed, speaking lyrics as though his soul could no longer contain him. Combined with the chants from the audience, the urgency of his delivery seemed as close to an honest sermon as I have seen in many years.
Aesop Rock’s movements were a match to his lyrics, his eyes expressing a depth and pathos that were at times superficially at odds with the content of the song — especially as the music continued to bounce along — reconciling only when I was able, between songs, to reflect on the overall impression of the set: Life is absurd. He floated ironically through various responses to this all too human situation — anger, frivolity, rebellion, loneliness, angst, independence — but ultimately settled on a sense of authenticity and naturalness. Each of the alternatives was laughed away as ultimately inadequate. What is the meaning and purpose of our existence? Why are we here? Why don’t we join the party? Why don’t we know the answers to the meaningfulness of our continuing efforts to breathe? Aesop Rock’s lyrics confront the audience with the questions, but the answers only emerge when taking in the nature of his performance.
The most true moment of the set emerged during one of three brief question and answer sessions that allowed Rock and Sonic a moment to breathe. Although the question was lost to the noise of the crowd, Aesop Rock’s answer rang clear: “I don’t know the last time I felt good in my life.” The answer was quickly contextualized to include the community of performers with whom he interacted: Homeboy Sandman, DJ Zone and Rob Sonic. The joy he felt creating art in their presence seemed as authentic as his delivery (when his eyes were open or closed), especially given moments when, allowing DJ Zone the spotlight, he would submit his body to the flow of the instrumental glory booming from the speakers. But the truth of the agony underlying the structure of his songs seemed more apt. It is as if each performance, each truth saying, allows him a temporary reprieve from his awareness of life that his eyes reveal, even as his smile allows it a mask. Much as the set — a few plastic animals backed by fake plastic trees and a cloth flame — presents its artificiality without regret in order to bear witness to the truth on stage, so also do the songs speak much of what is ridiculous in our lives in order to allow us to confront it.
DJ Zone’s fingers were nimble and able, and he was clearly engrossed in the ongoing production of sound and song. Rob Sonic’s presence was a welcome balance for the featured artist. But Aesop Rock’s performance of truth was absolutely memorable, even for one relatively unacquainted with the culture of hip hop. Those around me were transfixed, rapping along and smiling with the joy of witnessing a true hero in the field: I’m sure that the sense of the party that the bouncing beats provide allowed a sense of uplift for almost everyone there.
But what sold me on the performance, more than anything, was the earnestness with which Aesop Rock rapped in his inimitable and almost incomprehensible fashion. Unable to analyze individual moments within the song (excepting only the responses given to the audience, such as “take the brain out, leave the heart in” from “Homemade Mummy”), the meaning of the experience was nonetheless instructive. Find a community that will enable you to be fearless in your performance of truth. Find joy in its production, even if the truths are learned in sorrow. Do not waver from exposing the folly, futility and absurdity in life — but do not make it painful for others to hear. There is a joy in such honesty, especially when one finds it among friends.
I will likely attend more rap shows, but I doubt that I will find myself as absolutely enthralled with the lyrics, and especially with the performance, as I was in the Blue Moose last night. For those of you unacquainted with Aesop Rock, I would recommend checking out his Rhymesayers YouTube channel, which features his newest album — The Impossible Kid — set to a homemade puppet show version of the Shining. Listen. Watch. Learn. Be rewarded.