Sunday, January 13, 2013

Review: A$AP Rocky - Long.Live.A$AP

Rating: A-
Three million dollars: That’s a lot of faith to put in a relatively untested new artist, but RCA/Sony took that gamble when they signed A$AP Rocky on the strength of his first two singles “Peso” and “Purple Swag.” Both songs were products of the YouTube era of music, where music videos and a carefully cultivated image are more important to a new artist’s success than at perhaps any point in the history of popular music. Rocky has been better than most at this, and both videos are hazy codeine-drenched slices of Rocky’s post-regional rap identity. He was able to build on this initial promise and attention with his debut mixtape LiveLoveA$AP, which was one of the most enjoyable mixtapes of 2011, even if it was more style than substance. This style, influenced just as much by Screw tapes and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony as by artists from his native Harlem, was so compelling that Rocky’s good but not great rapping and limited subject matter seemed like strengths rather than weaknesses. Flashy rhyming and conscious rapping didn’t have much of a home in the world of A$AP.

A$AP Rocky seemed like a poor fit for a major label. In spite of his marketable image and gift for hooks, LiveLoveA$AP was not a commercial affair. Cloud rap, best exemplified on the tape by Clams Casino’s staticky, hazy beats, and screwed choruses appeared likely to remain underground favorites rather than fodder for Top 40 radio. Rocky’s major label debut seemed destined to either be compromised by commercial crossover attempts or to be a pale recreation of his first mixtape. Months of delays and several missed release dates appeared to confirm suspicions of label interference. In the midst of these delays, the A$AP Mob, made up of Rocky and several of his cohorts of vastly varying skill levels, released their debut mixtape Lords Never Worry, a mess of low rent beats, inconsistent rapping, and generic songwriting. Dig past the disappointment and the watering down of the A$AP aesthetic, and it was clear that Rocky had jumped ahead by leaps and bounds as a rapper, especially on “Bath Salt,” the tape’s single. After two great verses by the Flatbush Zombies and a terrible verse by A$AP Ant, Rocky took the time to make it clear that his charisma and image are backed up by real skill as a rapper. Even still, Rocky’s impeccable quality and image control appeared to be faltering, and anticipation wavered for Long.Live.A$AP, Rocky’s major label debut.

In hindsight, it’s likely that Lords Never Worry was so weak because Rocky had to hand the reins over to his less talented crewmates as he was too busy working on his own album. Fears that RCA/Sony would tamper with the A$AP sound were similarly unfounded. On Long.Live.A$AP, Rocky has managed to both expand and beef up his sound without compromising what made it so appealing in the first place. Blatant crossover attempts are conspicuously absent, and so is the rest of the A$AP Mob (although A$AP Ferg, the most talented and interesting member besides Rocky, appears on the bonus track “Ghetto Symphony” and A$AP Ty Beats contributes additional production to “Suddenly”). There’s no chaff on this record, which comes in at a lean 49 minutes. The title track is a statement of renewed purpose over the most menacing beat on the record (and with a hook sung by Rocky in a charmingly amateurish falsetto), and it sets the tone for the rest of the album.[1]

The economy of the record and Rocky’s quality control also extend to the album’s guests, all of whom bring their best to this record. “PMW (All I Really Need)” continues the hot streak that Rocky has had collaborating with Schoolboy Q.[2] Santigold handles hook duties on “Hell,” and is one of the album’s best examples of how Rocky has managed to subvert the standard expectations for a major label hip hop record in the 2010s. Rather than getting a high profile R&B hook to anchor a crossover-attempt of a single, he got the lower profile Santigold to deliver a dancehall-inflected hook over one of the haziest and most heavily reverbed beats Clams Casino has ever made. The combination should be jarring and ineffective, but it somehow works perfectly. The dancehall vibe is furthered on “Wild for the Night,” produced by Skrillex. The Skrillex collaboration is the most head-scratching choice on the album, and it’s also the weakest and most out of place song here, breaking the overall vibe with shrill, overly caffeinated dubstep. Considering Skrillex’s past work, however, it’s far from a disaster, and Rocky has gotten Skrillex to rein in some of his worst impulses. It’s also probably the only place you’re likely to hear dubstep screeching and screwed vocals in the same place, which isn’t as weird of a combination in practice as it is on paper. Thankfully, “Wild for the Night” is sandwiched between two of the three songs that best illustrate Rocky’s accomplishments on Long.Live.A$AP. The presence of Drake and 2 Chainz on “Fuckin’ Problems” makes it the closest thing this album has to a potential radio single, and the guests are expertly deployed for maximum effect. 2 Chainz is allowed to do what he does best, yelling ignorant shit, on the hook, and Drake has one of the best verses of his inconsistent career.[3] “Fuckin’ Problems” is the best indication of how Rocky will do on RCA. He is unlikely to allow sales considerations to get in the way of his vision, and Top 40 radio-sanctioned guests like 2 Chainz and Drake are bent to fit the A$AP mold.

“1 Train,” which immediately follows “Wild for the Night,” initially appears to be an anomaly in Rocky’s carefully constructed lane. The song follows the “Triumph” model with its emphasis on lyricism, lack of a hook, and six-minute runtime. Its Wu-Tang-esque beat, courtesy of Hit-Boy, is the most distinctly New York-sounding beat Rocky has ever rapped over, a far cry from the regionally omnivorous style he’s known for. New York classicists Joey Bada$$ and Action Bronson support this view of the track, but the other guests hail from the South (Yelawolf, Big K.R.I.T.), Detroit (Danny Brown), and L.A. (Kendrick Lamar). Instead of being merely a New York revival track, “1 Train” is a showcase for a new hip hop underground for whom regional boundaries are no longer the stylistic straightjackets they once were.

The first lines on Long.Live.A$AP are “I thought I’d die in prison, expensive taste in women/Ain’t had no pot to piss in, now my kitchen full of dishes.” This look back at his past foreshadows the final track “Suddenly,” which is the culmination of everything A$AP Rocky has done up to this point while simultaneously pointing toward a bright future for the 24-year-old rapper. The beat, coproduced by Hector Delgado and Rocky himself (under the name LORD FLACKO), would be right at home on LiveLoveA$AP, but lyrically it’s the most assured and impressive song he’s ever done. Trying his hand at storytelling, which he proves surprisingly adept at, he traces his life from his childhood growing up in a crime-filled Harlem to his current success, placing himself in the lineage of Eazy-E, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and Busta Rhymes (from Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Brooklyn, respectively, illustrating the roots of his regionally omnivorous style). He follows this first verse with a bridge that serves as a mission statement delivered with an uncanny appropriation of the Bone Thugs flow:

I only got one vision, that’s for kids in every color, religion
That listen, that you gotta beat the system, stay the fuck out the prisons
They try to blind our vision, but we all got children and siblings
You my brother, you my kin, fuck the color of your skin

After the bridge, he takes one last short verse to show off just how far he’s come as a rapper with a dizzying display of effortlessly nimble rapping and internal rhyming. Rocky makes it clear on “Suddenly” and throughout the album that he believes his rapid ascent in the hip hop world was completely deserved, and Long.Live.A$AP is the statement that unquestionably positions him as one of the most exciting major hip hop artists of this era.


"1 Train" (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.)


[1] “Long.Live.A$AP” also has a great video, another A$AP trademark.
[2] This streak began with “Brand New Guy” from LiveLoveA$AP and “Hands on the Wheel” from Q’s excellent Habits & Contradictions.
[3] Kendrick Lamar’s verse is also great, but that goes without saying at this point.

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