This is a long one, folks, so let me summarize it for you here: if you work anywhere like I work, you know that A$AP’s a bit of an institution these days in popular hip-hop, and there’s a reason for that. The production work on his latest album is out of this world (frequently fairly literally), and makes up for any boredom you might get from his lyrical stylings, which are mostly par-for-the course. When it’s good, it’s Really Cool, and that’s a function of some masterful production work and A$AP Rocky’s frequently surprising ability to push that musical ambition to his rhythmic advantage. Read on, and see what the heck I mean!
To the uninitiated (and really, are there any of us left?), A$AP Rocky’s appeal can be difficult to articulate. “Is he a great rapper?” is inevitably the first question we want answered and, well, no. Not specifically; he talks liking his clothes, his women, his ‘A$AP killers’, and on very rare occasion a couple of other things – albeit with a great sense of rhythm. “Is he a fascinating man? Is he one of rap’s new weirdos?” we ask as well, because of course sheer weirdness can be redemptive. Again, uh, nope, at least not lyrically. On an album that also features Kendrick Lamar (hyperventilating), Danny Brown (doing his best Muppet-on-Adderall) and Action Bronson (…“my shawty gallop in the morning on the beach like a Chilean horse”), Rocky’s hardly the strangest or most intriguing figure, and we have to hope he knows it: he features those three on the same damn track. At least on a vocal and lyrical level – and this is before we confront Clams Casino and Spaceghost Purrp, the elephants in the room – Rocky can come off as more of a tour guide than a rapper. And while he did co-executive-produce the album, and he is a talented curator, Professional Sideliner isn’t a promising statement for his actual rap career. So let’s ask Rocky why he’s cool:
“I said it must be cause a n– got dough/Extraordinary swag an’ a mouth full of gold” – “Goldies”
A-ha! Mystery solved! He’s rich! …And of course there’s much more to it than that, but that’s where any discussion of Rocky is doomed to start, if not end. A$AP Rocky (keeping in mind that this is par for the course in breakout hip-hop) is a rapper whose fame and hyper precede him to an absurd extent. To an early–career-defining extent. Come on, if you know hip-hop you have an opinion on the 24 year-old named Rakim Meyers: either you think he’s a ridiculous, overhyped combination of Tyler the Creator’s production palette (and pitch-tuned growls) and Kanye’s obsession with fashion, or you think he’s the harbinger of a new and brave sort of hip-hop, as quirkily fashion-conscious as it is concerned with repping the hood with minimalist beats. Listening through Long.Live.A$AP, and its predecessor for that matter, it’s difficult not to be drawn to extremes: the initial listen is inevitably a polarizing one. Which is one way of saying that I Hated It At First, or rather maybe I hated Rocky, or perhaps his hype machine. And so the truth of the matter and the man behind the 3-million dollar mixtape – which remains an irredeemably heavy-handed marketing ploy – lies, as it always does, in an an open-minded absorption of his album. So let’s drop the paper-bag-princess high-fashion and the worldwide sold-out shows and the hyperbolic interviews for now. This is marketing nonsense. Beyond A$AP Rocky’s name-calling and fashion-repping, what’s Long.Live.A$AP actually sound like?
Truth of the matter is, provided you’re the one person that slept on Live.Love.A$AP, it sounds like nothing you’ve quite heard before. While Rocky’s actual lyricism is your standard fashion-rapper excess (“PMW” not meaning Professional Motorsport World, apparently), the production here is absolutely out of this world. Openers “Long.Live.A$AP” and “Goldies” cleave close to Live.Love.A$AP’s comfort zone, delivering hazy and disorienting beats that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Live.Love.A$AP (or Goblin for that matter), but the album absolutely explodes from there. “Lvl” and “Hell” reunite listeners with Clams Casino, the minimalist-savant producer recently hailed by Brian Eno, with back-to-back production the likes of which almost seem ill-suited to rap music to begin with – and certainly mainstream rap music, which is of course Rocky’s sphere. That said, aside from “PMW”, which cleaves a little too close to lounge-commercial music, the effect is completely impressive. The beat on “Lvl” washes over like rolling waves of white static, with clipped vocal samples dropping between phasing synths and a dead-slow snare hit. To his credit – and the slow realization of this reviewer – Rocky drops in single and double-time verses, halting his flow and reversing it into seemingly every vocal cadence he can, turning what could easily have been a funeral dirge of a purple-drank track into a hazily engaging stunner of a single. This all occurs before Clams closes the track with an apparently wordless and utterly haunting choral sample that is both eery, surprising and utterly appropriate. It’s a fascinating beat, and unlike anything you’ve likely heard before. With Spaceghost Purrp out of the picture the extent to which the other producers complement – and occasionally ape – Clams Casino’s bizarre production style is Long.Live.A$AP’s greatest virtue, and man do they do it well. “Hell” gives us Santigold delivering “Me I want everything, it won’t take me long” with a sort of detached confidence that comes off more eerily prophetic than boastful over Clams’ second beat. There’s a frankness to her delivery thats powerful, as there is in Rocky’s when he delivers the surprisingly able “N-’s call me prophecy/swaggin’ in philosophy/white on white waggin’ call that mothafucka Socrates”. The beat marches trenchantly forward: again it’s dead slow and dusty, echoing and intentionally granular. It works beautifully. So much of the album functions this way that the hazy, detached two-step quickly becomes its M.O.: “Pain” is a slow-motion nova of synths, pulsing and swelling. The Hector Delgado, Friendzone and LORD FLACKO-produced “Fashion Killa” is absolutely gorgeous and rests two-step, snapping snares over a sunny, looping vocal sample that would do Clams Casino proud. It’s likely the coolest beat I’ve yet heard in 2013’s 14 days, and it’s followed by Danger Mouse’s utterly sobering “Phoenix”, Long.Live.A$AP’s major comedown (on an album filled with, arguably, nothing but comedowns). “Phoenix” drops uncut piano and drum samples onto Rocky’s now-signature vocal echoes, concisely bringing the album back to earth in time for “Suddenly”’s last-minute centerpiece. Describing in-depth any more of the production tricks feels like a spoiler alert: if you’re a fan of ‘producers’ albums’, you can stop reading here and just buy it. Long.Live.A$AP is, for two-thirds of its running time, a masterpiece of spooky, nearly-ambient hip-hop minimalism, and a much more concise one than its predecessor. Under a good set of headphones, tracks like “Phoenix” are staggeringly cool and make a compelling argument all their own for Long.Live.A$AP’s lasting contribution to pop-rap production.
That said, if you’re reading along with the track listing in mind, you know I’ve skipped the middle third of the album, as well as Rocky’s lyricism. There was a reason for that. Through all the blurriness of Long.Live.A$AP’s first fix tracks, the listener is meant to sink deep into the cuts. It’s relaxing and empowering all at once – that’d be the effect of dropping what’s effectively a swag-rapper over such cushioned, airy beats. Track seven, “Fuckin’ Problems”, produced by Hit-Boy and C. Papi (Drake, weirdly, because they all need aliases), aims to change all that. In fact, for that track and the two that follow it, Long.Live.A$AP changes completely into a very weird party album. This is a tad jarring. “Fuckin‘ Problems” gives us 2 Chainz yelling about two sentences on repeat, Drake rapping in his surprisingly capable autotune-timbre and Kendrick Lamar warming up for “1Train” by rapping about his dick a lot. The subject matter is par for the album, but Drake, Kendrick and 2 Chainz’s delivery isn’t – like the astounding and preposterous “Wild For The Night” and “1Train” that follow, this is your wakeup call, and all three artists sound fully energized. If you’re a hip-hop traditionalist or looking to party, these are the three tracks that could be safely hauled out and called and EP or a particularly potent workout mix. They’ve opted for a strange sort of pacing, but nowhere near as strange as hearing Rocky go toe-to-toe with Skrillex on “Wild For The Night”… and having it work. There’s something to be said for Rocky’s consistency, or at least his dead-set determination as a rapper: he might not have a whole lot going on creatively in his lyrics (and he doesn’t), but I’ll be damned if anyone else can keep up quite as well with Skrillex’s now hilariously-familiar laser assaults. As he does with every other beat on the album, Rocky keeps Skrillex under his thumb, and this is impressive – it’s easy to take for granted the way his delivery sinks into the production here, and it’s easy to forget that no one else is making popular, non-underground hip-hop quite this out-there in terms of production. It’s somewhat of a system-shock, then, when he brings in every other weirdo for what amounts to a drug-soaked free-for-all on the jaw-dropping “1Train”. Featuring Rocky himself, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Big K.R.I.T. over a string-quartet beat opulent enough that you feel Rick Ross might drop through a wall at any moment, it’s astounding and astoundingly out of place in an album otherwise so locked into its spiritual center of floaty synths and ghostly snare hits. And, just as surprisingly as Rocky’s safely-ignored lyricism interlocks perfectly with his delivery and the beats he chooses for himself, so does “1Train” carve out a queer niche for itself on what is definitely a deeply strange album. Not everyone could deliver words as cheap as “A$AP, get like me/never met a mothafucka fresh like me” and have them sink so deep, and so this is both Rakim’s blessing and curse.
At the end of your listen, like me you’ll probably note that you can’t quote many of A$AP Rocky’s actual lyrics, and that’s fair, but the sonic presentation of the album is transfixing. Long.Live.A$AP is a very pretty thing lacking in lyrical depth, and that’s perfectly alright – so long as its intentional, or at least self-aware. There’s reason to believe this is the case. Throughout the album, up until “Phoenix”, Rocky is flagrantly hedonistic, even approaching nihilism in the name of materialism. It’s an aesthetic we’ve experienced before, but never over beats so isolating and eery. This isn’t music to feel good to, necessarily – it’s music that can evoke bleariness, disorientation and intense isolation. At times it can seem that Rocky exists in a closed universe, parallel to our own, where this sort of rampant, hollow materialism is recognized for what it is. Only production of a high calibre can draw this sort of gut reaction out of lyricism as straightforward as Rocky’s – and thankfully, he has it. And only a wink and nod from the man himself can lock this sort of presentation into place – and thankfully he has that too, on the final two tracks: the strange and show-stopping “Pheonix”, and the successfully autobiographical “Suddenly”, which ranks both technically and lyrically as his finest track yet. Quoting the tracks here won’t prove anything – go listen and see. Long.Live.A$AP’s odd, personal third act begins very, very late, but there’s no denying that it arrives.
So is A$AP Rocky more than that a tour guide and an event planner? Well, yes and no. The man with the 3 million dollar dreads still isn’t an amazing rapper, at least not on an album scale, and his subject matter isn’t going to surprise you. What will impress, and what surprised me, was the care with which Long.Live.A$AP’s architecture has been constructed. Unlike Live.Love.A$AP, this one’s an album, and the stakes have been raised accordingly. By turns fresh, surprising, sleepy and even hilarious, repeated listens turn Long.Live.A$AP into a pleasant surprise for 2013, and an extremely strong start for hip-hop’s most mainstream angle. Too repetitive to be perfect, and lyrically non-stimulating enough to avoid becoming a classic, A$AP Rocky has nevertheless dropped a second impressive album worthy of his hype, and that’s much more than can be said of many of his predecessors.
Published right here, January 2013. It’s good to be back.