A few personal changes pushed Aesop Rock into more adventurous musical territory. The enigmatic underground rapper got married, turned 30 and traded the intense streets of New York City for the laid-back environs of San Francisco - all within the past two years. These events helped shaped the direction of his new album, None Shall Pass.
"I thought nobody gets to this point without going through a reflective period," says the rapper born Ian Matthias Bavitz. "Something happens at this age where you find a newfound appreciation for things. And there's this new filter to things. You're quietly judging others. You're quietly judging yourself, wondering what your next move will be."
Musically, Rock, who headlines the 9:30 Club in Washington on Monday, wanted to expand his lyrical scope and make the music fuller. "I tried to paint a picture of other time periods," says Rock, who formally studied painting before becoming a hip-hop artist full time. "I cut out the braggadocios. I wanted to subtract myself fully and tell stories from a third point of view. I wasn't interested in [dismissing] other rappers."
The hostility that fueled 2003's Bazooka Tooth and 2001's Labor Days has been supplanted by an easy playfulness.
"I wanted to do some high-school-era mischief," says Rock, who last week was at home in San Francisco. "I got tired of everybody repeating the same phrases in the hip-hop world. ... I try to write interesting phrasings into the wording."
Rock's dense verbosity marked his four previous albums, and on None Shall Pass, he still spins tangled lyrical webs studded with cryptic metaphors and complicated internal rhymes. The Long Island, N.Y., native is rarely straightforward. His lines twist, turn, skip and sprint all over the place.
But on the new CD, Rock's complex, overstuffed approach is backed by melodic, organic production courtesy of the rapper, Blockhead and El-P. The smart, uncluttered arrangements pull you in, even if you don't quite understand what Rock is rapping about.
There are, however, a few linear moments on None Shall Pass. But they still come from left field. "Bring Back Pluto," for instance, uses the planet's place in the solar system as a metaphor for bureaucratic oppression: "They're gonna take his milk money next," Rock spits over a slinky, bongo-accented rhythm. "I wanted it to have something new and different," Rock says of the new CD. "We just thickened the whole sound. I kept pushing myself, wondering, 'Will people like this?' To me, it's interesting. The only thing I'm sure of is doing something strange that nobody else is doing."
Rock has long followed that ethos. He started his career 10 years ago with two independent releases, Music for Earthworms and the Appleseed EP. Both helped to establish Rock's reputation on the New York underground rap scene. But with 2001's Labor Days, issued by the Definitive Jux label, the rapper garnered mainstream attention from critics. Bazooka Tooth generated even more buzz.
In between that release and None Shall Pass, Rock was commissioned to compose a 45-minute instrumental track for Nike's Original Run series. Released this year, the continuous track is meant to be listened to while jogging.
But Rock says he was more focused while working on None Shall Pass.
"New York was a comfort zone," he says. "I had a lot of distractions and knew a lot of people. I didn't know a lot of people here. My life is way quieter, something I needed."
This calmer point in his life is reflected in the new music. Sort of.
"The weight on different subject matters is shifting," Rock says. "At this point, I don't care what people think. I just try to keep going and going. The only way I'm comfortable with a new album is if I'm taking a new risk."
Aesop Rock plays Monday night at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available through tickets.com or by calling 800-955-5566. He also plays the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St. in Baltimore, on Sept. 21 at 10 p.m. Tickets are $18 and are available through missiontix.com or by calling 410-662-0069.