A$AP Rocky 'Long.Live.A$AP'
(A$AP WORLDWIDE / Polo Grounds / RCA Records)
New York seems to be on the lookout for its next lyrical messiah.
The zeal enveloping wunderkind boom-bap rap collective Progressive Era—particularly the razor sharp wit and lyricism of their 17 year old front man Joey Bada$$—proves it. The recent proliferation of husky voiced, hard-core grime spitters like Action Bronson proves it. And the inexorable hype surrounding the protracted release of Long.Live.A$AP proves it. With many of the Big Apple’s previous luminaries either dead, incarcerated, preoccupied with the spruiking of nutrient water, sprawled out in the glossy pages of tabloids with newborns, incapable of grasping the stylistic trends that are in vogue in rap today, working in film, or simply already entombed in the pantheon of the supreme spitters and thus content to rest firmly on their laurels, the birthplace of hip-hop seems to be crying out for a young, ‘real’ MC to come along and revitalise the scene. To retain credibility while cracking the commercial realm: someone to make it big while rhyming like B.I.G.
At first glace, Rakim ‘Rocky’ Mayers (himself named after one of New York’s original rap legends) and his A$AP Mob seem perfectly poised to take that mantle. Rocky’s gutters-to-glamour myth of creation certainly sees him fit the bill, anointing him with the kind of self-styled and street spawned authenticity that is of absolute necessity in the hip-hop game. The story so far:
Day One: Move between housing projects in Manhattan and Harlem as a child.
Day Two: Commence rapping in freestyle cyphers at age 8.
Day Three: Assemble the A$AP Mob, a collective of rappers, producers and filmmakers in 2007.
Day Four: Release music video for first single, ‘Peso’, on Youtube. Subsequently garner 20 million views.
Day Five: Self-release DIY mixtape ‘Live.Love.A$AP’ to widespread critical acclaim in 2011.
Day Six: Sign gob-smacking three million dollar recording contract with Sony, RCA Records and Polo Grounds Music.
And on the Seventh Day He rested.
Sort of. With the release of Long.Live.A$AP having been continually pushed back in lieu of legal issues pertaining to the clearance of samples, Rocky floated around luxuriating in his own hype and doing what he does best: ‘I be that pretty mother fucker’. He appeared decked out in Alexander Wang and Rick Owens in spreads for GQ. He lounged alongside Lana Del Rey in her film clip for National Anthem’. He kicked it in Margiela’s while sipping on Armand de Brignac in Paris for the lavish film clip for his single ‘Goldie’. He was nominated ‘Best Look’ at the European MTV Music Awards.
‘Who gives a shit? - what’s the album like?’ There’s a point to all of this. Because the thing about A$AP Rocky and Long.Live.A$AP is that they’re triumphs of aestheticism as much as they are feats of beats and rhymes. Rocky’s success can be attributed just as easily to his immaculate skills in curation as his machine-gun fire elocution. He trades in materiality – it’s the fabric with which his entire charismatic persona as a rapper has been woven: the French braids, the gold fronts, the avant-garde fashions seem as constitutive a part of his character as his rhyming. There’s an entire song here, 'Fashion Killa' that sees Rocky spend four minutes enumerating what kind of brands a girl has to wear to pique his interest. It’s not enough that he stays strapped with a Glock and an AK – he carries them around in Goyard leather. It’s not enough that he’s a badass motherfucker – Rocky’s a pretty motherfucker.
You’d think this blinkered obsession with surface and material would work toward the detriment of Long.Live A$AP, but the inescapable superficiality doesn't especially harm the record. Admittedly, there’s no real narrative focus here. The entire spectrum of Rocky’s thematic concerns are basically enunciated in the very first lines of the record: ‘I thought I’d probably die in prison, (Now got) expensive taste in women, I didn’t have no pot to piss in, now my kitchen’s full of dishes’. Or equally, on the excellent posse-cut ‘1 Train’: ‘Young boy, let his nuts hang, let his gun bang, transition to the Lamborghini from the Mustang’. Namely, Rocky’s from the hood, he used to be poor, he used to have to hustle for his cash, now he’s 3 mill in the green and he’s feeling pretty fucking good about it. Oh, and he has sex with a lot of girls. A LOT of girls. But this relatively limited scope evaporates into irrelevance when you consider the informed choices that govern every other facet of this record.
The choice of guest collaborators is exceptional. Production from Hit-Boy, 40 Shebib, Clams Casino, T-Minus, Rico Love, Ty Beats, Danger Mouse and even Skrillex ensures that Live.Love covers every cross-pollinated bastardisation of hip-hop that’s currently in vogue: from woozy codeine-soaked purple ragas, to screeching rap ruminations on dub-step, to trap house. Further, the injection of some significant capital works to ensure that the production sounds a million bucks (or three), with a diverse array of sleek beats pummelling away whilst Rocky charismatically ponders his nouveaux-riche existence.
Equally, guest verses from Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Kendrick Lamar, Action Bronson, Drake, 2Chainz, Big K.R.I.T., Gunplay, A$AP Ferg, Santigold, Schoolboy Q and Overdoz ensure that almost every breed of lyricist is represented. There’s southern drawl, gritty barks from Queens, smooth syrupy flows from Brooklyn, commercially relevant hype-manning, poppy hooks, rabid gnashes from the underground and healthy representation from Rocky’s Mob. But the most impressive aspect of this miscellany lies in the way that Rocky always manages to seem so natural, so at home at every single point on an album that lacks any form of cohesion whatsoever. Both an impressive versatility of technique and an uncanny ability to curate his flow according to the material shine through the inconsistency, as vivid as the gold grills that cap his toothy grin.
Even the way Rocky raps seems symptomatic of an interest in prioritising style over substance, with cadence, flow and syncopation taking precedence over theme or insight. Take ‘Pussy, Money, Weed’ for example, a track that sees Rocky examining the titular holy trinity in depth, through a chorus of: ‘Pussy, money, weed / that’s all this nigga need’, his stylistic chops, nimbly skipping around the beat while switching between southern-influenced double time rhymes and his instantly recognisable laid back, half-sung flow. In short, while he never really says that much of note, he just sounds so damn good while he’s saying it.
And that’s the thing. While he may not be as talented a lyricist as the New York forefathers he’s apparently trying to wrench the torch from, there’s a certain magnetism around A$AP Rocky that’s undeniable. He may not have been blessed with the prophetic message of Nas, the intellectual wordplay of Jay-Z, the raw vigour of M.O.P, the concise witticism of Big L, the warped flair of any member of The Wu Tang Clan or The Notorious B.I.G’s ability to paint chronicles of the streets with a pen and a pad. Instead, Rocky’s gift is that he’s an exceptional curator. And while he may not be The Saviour, all that good taste is still something to savour.