As our political and social discourse is increasingly dominated by the generational categories of Boomer and Millennial—the Boomer-Millennial dialectic—Generation X falls into a kind of no man's land, befitting of its nomenclature. Not prone to the more boisterous and manic inclinations of its bookend gens, it exists in a muted between space surveying the decay with relative equanimity.
Aesop Rock, born Ian Matthias Bavitz of New York, is a fitting representative of the Generation Without a Name, or what he calls the "walking dead generation." Having come up in the underground rap scene before the complete digital information revolution (which was the death knell of all things underground), his formative years in the television-and-radio age makes him like a creature from another planet to many of his younger fans. While his aloof and apolitical style also makes him a stranger to the socially conscious, world-changing pretensions of his elders.
Early in his career, we see indications of his having been sculpted in the television age in his prophetic Basic Cable, a track which now seems somewhat quaint given the dominance of the internet, but which still grasped the nature of the beast in the omnipresent digital media screen. Structured as a dark paean to the god of television by an idolatrous worshipper, the track picks apart the seductive and addictive nature of TV:
Plug it in, turn it on, prop me up against the couch / Lights out, I ain't ever gonna have to leave my house / Satellite dish, get up on my wish list, turn me to a tyrant / Let my clean spirit dissolve through the appliance
His perceptive take on television is reminiscent of another somewhat prophetic Gen X native New Yorker who was into media ecology, especially television: David Foster Wallace.1 From Wallace's "The Entertainment" in Infinite Jest to Aesop's "pixelated god", both unmasked the allure and terror of the television set while the emergence of the internet both confirmed and outstripped their analyses. Stylistically, both were also interested in employing postmodernist, deconstructive techniques while still preserving, or perhaps renewing, a sense of sincerity in an irony-dominated world.
Aesop's resemblance to the literary figure extends even to the structure and content of some of their pieces. Wallace's Incarnations of Burned Children is a vivid and harrowing very short story about a child in danger, and so is Aesop's Ruby '81, with both delivering a similar gut-wrenching, visceral impact. Or take their acute critiques of the nature of the modern work world, with Wallace meticulously documenting the drudgery in his The Pale King, and Aesop tackling it in his 9-to-5ers Anthem. Aesop's is an especially vicious attack:
Order ten dollars or more? we'll shove it down your throat for free / I'll sacrifice my inborn tendencies / For copper pennies for one commanding "Gimme that!" / So we can retain baby fat
In the corporate work world of the Amerikwan wagecuck everyone is "trying to guard the fortress of a king they've never seen or met / but all are trained to murder at the first sign of a threat." The critique appears again in his brilliant Shrunk, which documents a visit to his shrink. While filling out his information form in the waiting room Aesop writes in the employment history that he's employed by "trillionaires with perfect teeth and pores / and the people who open doors for the people who open doors."
Not having known the economic prosperity experienced by Boomers, nor having been pacified or mesmerized by the false promise of technological civilization, as many Millennials have been, Aesop and Gen X occupy a perch that is capable of seeing modern work for what it is. And while his critiques of television, suburbia, and modern work can be seen as tacit attacks on the world bequeathed to us by Boomers, Aesop (whose fans are predominantly millennial), seems bewildered by, and out of touch with, their youth culture, as is apparent in his Lotta Years. Lamenting the passage of time and his own squandered potential in Rings, Aesop wears his age and some of his regrets on his sleeve and doesn't attempt to LARP as a hip youngster, which is a temptation in a youth-centric music scene.
Aesop's between-ness, as he straddles the gulf between postmodernist nihilism and sincerity, is especially evident in his treatment of the subject of death. A recurring theme of his later work is how profoundly he was impacted by the death of a close friend, the rapper Camu Tao. This comes out especially in the track Get Out the Car. While he is able to emotionally plumb the depths of his friend's death for profound insights, he quickly turns around and pens Water Tower, a cynical ode to death on the same album. Rather than the Circle of Life Aesop sees the Cycle of Death, with death acting as the ontological ground of being. Death is what drives everything and it's the great equalizer which unites, in a perverse way: "whether disposable goldfish or theist, we certainly become the earth as equals / in a circle, unique until the spirit isn't willing."
While the criticism of equality and the acceptance of hierarchy in life are well appreciated, analyzing death with this detached indifference sits uneasily aside his more personal reflections. These contradictions are emblematic of the modern angst surrounding death. When it happens to people near you it is world-shattering to an unnatural degree, and can become an unhealthy obsession, but it's also unnaturally distant from our everyday thoughts as medicines cure more ailments, our lifespans increase, and we send the elderly and dying to homes (convalescent or funeral), out of sight and mind. The result is a sort of manic schizophrenia surrounding death, which can be seen in Aesop's work.
There is a similar tension surrounding spiritual issues. Aesop seems to have been raised Roman Catholic and lapsed into a somewhat hesitant atheism. "These kids [i.e. millennials] are running wild, I'm still recovering from church" he says on Lotta Years. On his most recent album The Impossible Kid his religious angst is most evident on the track Supercell. It seems his family is still religious today, a fact which confronts him when he returns for visits and he has to wrestle with the situation. Should I pray? Repent? He answers no, sadly, but he entertains the questions.
On the same album, he tells the true story of his brother wanting to attend an industrial rock band concert when they were both younger. In the verse, Aesop's Christian mother investigates the band and decides that they're too unwholesome and ultimately doesn't allow his brother to attend. The cry of teenage rebellion is sounded in response, but is it a petulant cry against duly ordained parental authority? Or an understandable complaint against a heavy-handed puritanism? Either way, it sheds some light on his ex-Catholic angst and positions him between the old world of faith and the emerging world of post-Christianity.
As potent as many of his more personal reflections can be, it's as an observer and verbal painter of American urban tableau that he really shines. Many of the images of city life that spill from his mind only form fragments of tracks, scattered somewhat haphazardly throughout his discography. This disarray itself being an expression of the chaotic and dissembling nature of America's cities. 6B Panorama is one of the few tracks dedicated wholly to the theme, while it acts as framing and background elsewhere.
But these portraits of the 'Kwa aren't necessarily intended to be laudatory. Lamenting social atomization in Molecules, Aesop sees himself and those around him as displaced, adrift urbanite units without any sense of home or belonging and it's not pretty:
Traded any semblance of consistency to play the odds / Not even a baby doll to change his gauze2 / Not even a hideaway to hide up in3 / A side effect of sliding environment to environment / Driving isn't simply when the tires spin, try again / Departures and arrivals aren't only time and mileage / Try again again
While evincing a clear sense of loss and yearning for rootedness, he also embraces and revels in the fundamentally chaotic and ugly milieu he occupies. Lacking an identity and holding only the tools of modernity, which provide no opportunities to construct one, Aesop drifts listlessly through the wreckage of the world, oscillating between various poles and never landing anywhere. Seeing these absurd, tragicomic circumstances reflected everywhere, etched onto the landscape of the city, feeling their oppression yet knowing nothing else: this is the aesthetic of Amerikwa and Aesop captures it at his own peril.