Not all musical ambition is the same; it even comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be a different approach on your sophomore album or a complete makeover of your sound and image. In further opposition to the supposed sophomore album curse, Harlem’s ASAP Ferg looks to avoid disappointment with Always Strive and Prosper. For one, the shift in overall tone and sonic palette between Trap Lord, his debut album from over three years ago, and ASAP is immediately noticeable. Trap Lord kicked out the jams with “Let It Go”, setting up the debut as one of the year’s penultimate summer soundtracks; ASAP opening cut “Rebirth” smacks you with a notice of obvious change from Ferg as both a burgeoning artist and maturing individual. Music fans aren’t usually very accepting of an artist changing their sound or image, which Ferg is certainly aware of, but on this new album he essentially forces them to realize that a rapper can express different aspects of themselves at different moments.
Clocking in at roughly 47 minutes across a charitable eighteen tracks, Always Strive and Prosper does not seem to break any new ground. The album contains nothing as instantly recognizable as “Work”, Ferg’s trunk-rattling breakout hit, or immediately catchy as “Shabba”, and it largely abandons its predecessor’s retro East Coast hip-hop flavor—as well as the derivative Southern rap instrumentals—in favor of a gleaming, catchy pop shine and subtle real world earthiness. Some artists fall into a sophomore slump by trying to replicate a breakthrough’s success but Ferg almost seems to have approached ASAP as if his first had never existed. The hood pope emcee splits this new album between big time brags, colorful shout-alongs, fuzzy/futuristic instrumentals, Top 40 ambitions, and absurd narrative-driven skits, and it’s precisely this fragmentary nature that’s both its strength and weakness. The excitement of being musically all over the place with distorted, rough studio edits, stadium-sized beats and diverse features—from Chuck D to Chris Brown, and sadly Big Sean, too—pressed against street-centric swagger can leave listeners bewildered as to what the hell is coming next.
Similarly to his famous best friend ASAP Rocky, Ferg has always had a way with using hip-hop’s vast stylistic elements and tropes to his advantage. After all, this is the postmodern New York kid that coopted Atlanta’s all-encompassing roughneck trap lifestyle, prompting the Trap God himself, Gucci Mane, to air out some grievances. Here, he once again shifts and contorts both recognizable sonic and lyrical elements to his liking; “Let It Bang”, a potentially by-the-numbers banger if in the hands of a less excitable artist, is molded into something slightly more palatable, digestible and refreshingly nonthreatening by Ferg; “Strive” recruits Under Construction-era Missy Elliott and flips a vintage hip-house ditty with words of encouragement for downtrodden Millennials; and “Hungry Ham” finds the ASAP Mob reunited with Skrillex for another surefire crossover party starter. If there’s any takeaway from ASAP, it’s that Ferg at least sounds like he’s having fun with music. The one instance of Trap Lord familiarity on the album is perhaps its lead single “New Level”, which ultimately conforms to Future’s mumbling clichés rather than allotting Ferg his own space to play with.
Always Strive and Prosper is certainly a slippery album. Throughout ASAP Ferg is just trying shit out; some of it sticks and some of it sucks. With the quality being an obviously mixed bag, the album is backed by a glut of guest appearances and is strung along by a thinly-veiled narrative about family and home. These themes on ASAP usually prop up indiscriminately in the form of skits. We get one about his rowdy uncle (titled “Meet My Crazy Uncle”), which transitions into “Psycho”, a song that outlines just how crazy he really is, another about Ferg’s infidelity (titled “Damn Not Again”), and a skit dedicated to his deceased grandmother. The latter skit is the standout as it perfectly introduces “Grandma”, a sweet ode to his grandmother and the sepia-toned chestnut closer to the album. Before he pursued a career in rap Ferg had a background in art/design, which begs the question, why aren’t there more vivid, painterly lyrics on the album like this standout: “Wish you was here to smell this air/ Then I could touch your pretty hair/ We could talk for two more years/ Wish you were around in your wheel chair.”
It’s been nearly three years since ASAP Ferg burst onto the post-regional rap scene, soundtracking everything from high schoolers’ shenanigans to Bushwick rooftop barbeques, and a lot has changed between Trap Lord and Always Strive and Prosper. The bodega, crazy uncles, growing up, dealing with sudden fame, and saying goodbye all take up lots of space on Always Strive and Prosper—more than a handful of songs have characters thanking each other before riding off into the sunset. Moments like that, fictional or not, have to resonate with some confession and humanity. For all the sincerity and contemporary jargon about creating a legacy and artistic debt and tension and duality and eclectic personalities, world-beating influence and convergence, a seemingly drained Donald “Ferg” Ferguson, Jr. lets the album’s eighteen tracks just hover around the unsaid. C PLUS