The sun peeks in the windows and around the edges of the large door as we wake up. Surely, this isn’t what we asked for. The open space, the woods, and that large door looming, promising to open wide and force us to forge ahead with our work. Or did we leave it open, even as we plotted a different path, one guided by our passion? Why are we even living in a barn in the first place?
It’s not something one normally ponders. It’s especially not a question one normally hears a musician pose to a cartoon bear. But that’s exactly the question Aesop Rock ruminated upon before departing California, where he took up residence after leaving his native New York, heading somewhere a little more affordable before beginning work on “The Impossible Kid,” his seventh studio album. In answering the question, he gave us his best album to date.
“Yes, I want to live in a barn—that’s perfect. I can clear my head, I can get some work done, I can think about my life, think about some changes, and, really, it could be good for me, you know? That’s a good move, right, moving to a barn?”
‘I’m A Failed Visual Artist.’
Aesop, the rapper and not the teller of fables, isn’t as well-known as he is talented, although he has achieved enough cache to recently appear on “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert. He’s never blown up pop radio nor broken out via Hollywood, although he has enjoyed success in the world of indie hip-hop, on video game soundtracks, and compositions for runners commissioned by Nike.
He’s traversed several record labels without transitioning to a major label. He’s collaborated with other rappers and musicians of all stripes—Yo La Tengo joined him onstage for “The Late Show”—all without becoming a guy who gets tapped for clothing lines and reality TV. Of course, that suits him just fine. He didn’t set out to become a rapper, anyway; it just happened when Plan A didn’t quite work out.
“The posing and the posturing, it just feels so flimsy. I mean, look, I went to school for visual arts. I am a failed visual artist. The people I feel inspired around draw pictures, they make paintings. Musicians are all about celebrity first and foremost, and I just can’t do it. The second any sort of popularity contest comes into the picture, I have to walk in the other direction. These people are sociopaths.”
If this sounds relatable, it’s because many of us also failed at something before finding our way. Our career paths had a Plan A, then what we actually ended up doing. We ambled and stumbled. We found our way forward, ultimately, but it wasn’t the one we envisioned.
For Aesop, it was visual arts, but then he found that his wordsmithing abilities put more money in his pocket. Maybe we too used to draw before we went down our own wordsmithing path and started writing articles. Maybe we went in an even more drastic direction away from creative pursuits and entered the world of accounting or logistics.
Regardless, whichever direction our passions led us, many of us used to dream of getting paid for our hobbies, of doing things that would elevate us in the collective conscience and set us apart from normal mortals. Thankfully, our passion let us down and we found vocations, work that maybe is grimy, dirty, filled with popularity contests. That’s better. It needs to be done and leaves us time to keep our passion unfettered by our material needs. In the words of another man whose passion let him down and led him to vocation, “While passion is way too important to be without, it is way too fickle to follow around.”
We Got Old and Stopped Following Our Passions
It’s in this spirit that Aesop Rock delivers “The Impossible Kid,” and invites us to join him on this leg of his journey. As he capably performs in his vocation, he offers tracks that let us remember the great satanic panic old Phil Donohue pushed. We get to nod in agreement when he laments that, due to aging, maybe he’ll never build another halfpipe. We nod in agreement when he laments that “happiness can drive away the movement.”
Aesop is of Gen X and, as such, was forged in apathy and ennui. Just listen to the music that was popular when we were teens. We’re not supposed to be happy, especially if fomenting a movement. We’re definitely not supposed to be successful. (Ignore the tax bracket many of those who made that music popular now reside in.) Except things happened: we bought houses and cars, we had kids or started thinking about retirement, and thus found it necessary to earn some money.
So we sold out, pursued vocations, and stopped following our passions. It must be nice to have someone else pay your bills so you can retain the purity of giving away the fruits of your labor for fun, to live for your passion.
There’s also the aforementioned aging. With age comes wisdom that not only do falls off a skateboard hurt a lot more than they did when we were 15, but also it’s nice to pay the bills and have some left over to leave in the bank. It’s okay to rest every now and again, maybe even in a rustic barn out in the woods.
When We Stop Chasing Passion, We Find Meaningful Vocations
Our ancestors stalked the weeds so we could have these opportunities, not so we could just sit around waiting on a benefactor paying us to do whatever we feel like at any given moment. They toiled so we could perhaps toil a little less.
Aesop may have failed at his passion, but he went on from there to discovering his vocation. He went from New York to college to making money selling cassettes to “Labor Days”—his first relatively big release—to the Definitive Jux label and marriage and California, to the Rhymesayers label and divorce and the barn.
We failed in the music industry and went on to making money shooting and editing videos to marriage and kids and to writing and to shooting and editing video while our guitar sits downstairs mostly untouched. Maybe that series of events is more specific to me.
In any case, in that barn, Aesop traced his story forward and back, busted out his trademark vocabulary, and wrote “The Impossible Kid.” In it, he recounts his successes and failures. He throws some elbows at a former producer and label, mourns a friend who passed away, and returns to the ethos of “Labor Days.” It may be his vocation, but he also succeeds at making art. He paints a different sort of picture than he set out to back when he was a younger man.
Passion Is a Terrible Guide
We all have a similar opportunity. We’re destined to work, to create, to enjoy successes and failures. We often set out on one path and find ourselves on an entirely different one altogether. It may just be a matter of how we think about it. As Aesop says in “Molecules,” the closing track: “These violent drums. Those primal fears. This pool of mud. That’s why I’m here. Wild frontier.”
We should all embrace the same. A few of us were born imbued with the talents that affords the opportunity to follow our passions. Most of us, like Aesop Rock, were born imbued with talents that didn’t destine us for a life guided by passion, but one guided by our vocations.
That’s better anyway. There is hope in the wild frontier. It’s productive; it’s fruitful. It’s the place that reminds us that while we used to paint, we actually still do. The only thing that changed is the medium. We simply had to swing those barn doors wide open, emerge into the sunlight, and remember that while our fickle passion is a terrible guide, we should definitely keep it with us while we work.