"I had a few ideas -- a few guidelines more than a specific goal with this album," the 32-year-old rapper says. "I had officially grown tired of doing rap that was like, 'I did this and I did that, and I am this and I am that.' I started thinking about how seriously I take writing lyrics, because that's just what I've been doing for a long time. It was like, 'Why don't I treat this the way that Stephen King would treat a book, where he could write about anything?' In rap music, people are so in a box, probably more than any other genre, and if you creep out of the box and cover subject matter that people aren't used to, you're the weird guy. It's downright embarrassing that rap is often such a close-minded, homophobic, often racist medium where the subject matter is so small.
"But people are nervous. You start getting people who you're friends with, who've supported your records, saying, 'Oh, that last one was weird. You're doing weird stuff.' I'm like, 'Yeah, I am doing weird stuff. I'm just trying [stuff]!' I'd rather try something and fail than just do the same [stuff] again."
As an example of how the artist stretched out on his fifth album, he cites "The Harbor is Yours," which is, indeed, one of the most striking tracks on the disc.
"It's a story about a pirate who falls in love with a mermaid. I mean, that's obviously some silly subject matter, but the point of the song was to make it more along the lines of almost a folk tale, to take on this story-telling vibe. People like the idea of telling a story with a rap song, and it's the perfect medium to tell a story -- it's like Dr. Seuss would tell a story, because it rhymes and it's awesome.
"It's so easy to do something that's a little bit different in rap. Because everybody is doing something that's so much the same, it doesn't take much to be different."
In fact, "None Shall Pass" was widely received as Aesop Rock's most accessible recording, a fact he attributes in part to a move from New York to San Francisco. Born Ian Matthias Bavitz and raised in Huntington, Long Island, the musician debuted in the late '90s with two self-financed indie releases, "Music for Earthworms" and the "Appleseed" EP, before making his first big splash with "Float" (2000) and then hooking up with Def Jux, home to friends and like-minded explorers El-P, Mr. Lif and Rob Sonic.
In 2005, Aesop/Bavitz married Allyson Baker, guitarist for the San Francisco rock band Parchman Farm. The two now live and record together on the West Coast, and those two facts played a big role in the direction of his last album.
"This was the first record ever that I did not record in New York City. Not to say that a California vibe infused the music, but I just had a different environment, and it was a completely different process. I sort of had a bigger studio than I ever had in my New York apartment. There was more room to breathe, and between myself and my wife, we have a lot more instruments in the house. Plus, having her here is awesome: It's like I have a 24-hour studio guitarist on call!"
Of course, as anyone who's ever dated a musician knows, there was a moment of concern at first.
"It's funny, because when you start dating somebody and then you find out that they're in a band, you're like, 'Aw, f---! What if their band sucks? This is going to be terrible, 'cause I like you, but if I go see your band, I'm not going to be able to pretend!' The first time I went to see her band, my fingers were crossed, and Lif came with me. I was like, 'Please, let this be at least acceptable!' But she could shred; she was a really talented guitar player!"
Baker isn't touring with her husband -- "I just can't help thinking that would be way too cheesy," he says -- but Sonic is supporting him and performing several songs, and his longtime DJ, Big Wiz, is manipulating both the sound and the video. As always, it seems as if the Def Jux labelmates all spur each other on to do their best.
"That's 100 percent still true," Aesop Rock says. "There have been times when we lived very close to each other, and now it's not quite that because everyone is sort of grumpy as they're getting older. But when I hear new stuff from most of these guys -- and it sounds silly, because these are my friends -- it inspires me. When I have a hard time finding some rap music that will inspire me to write, it's usually these guys I go to, and I think they're the most successful at doing this style of hip-hop. When I listen to their songs, part of me is like, 'Wow, I'm really proud of El, this is a really sick song that he wrote.' And the other part is like, 'Damn, now I have to outdo this!'"