words byDREW MALMUTH
Rakim Mayers was never meant to be underground. He doesn't have the penchant for introspection or self-deprecation that one finds with rap's cult figures. What he does have is a magnetic persona and a knack for crafting dreamy hip-hop anthems – tracks that might seem underground on paper but ultimately have the unmistakable feel of a hit. It is unsurprising then that his time in the limbo between underground notoriety and a three million dollar record deal was practically non-existent. With almost no material to his name labels were falling over themselves to sign a twenty-something from Harlem that rocked waxed denim and called himself the “pretty motherfucker.” All of that is a testament to how distinctive Live.Love.A$AP was. It was a potent blend of smoked-out, screw music production, southern drawl, and east coast rhyme schemes. There were moments that were operatic, even over the top, but those gaudy flourishes always made for an interesting contrast with Rocky's energetic, shit-talking verses. Rocky had touched on the right sound at the right time and, perhaps most importantly, he looked the part (without the "Peso" video he's probably just another guy with a mixtape instead of a cultural figure in waiting). On his debut album, Long.Live.A$AP, Rocky aimed to maintain the general style of his mixtape while upgrading the sound enough to expand his fan base. In general, he does exactly that; however his debut is slightly more erratic, with fantastic tracks alongside lackluster moments and patches of weak lyricism.
Inexplicably, the album opens with the sound of thunder. Maybe I'm missing some sort of thematic connection (something tells me I'm not) but it feels strangely heavy handed. In any case, its an unfortunate opening to the otherwise solid eponymous track. The production is snappy and immediate, especially in comparison to the swelling Clams Casino beat that opened the mixtape. Rocky is able to showcase some of his verbal dexterity before the beat drops out and a serene and subtly effective chorus adds a refreshing layer to the track. “Long.Live.A$AP” is the first of a few songs on the album that aren't spectacular, but they are well produced and they use the chorus to great effect. “PMW (All I Really Need)” explores Rocky's diverse interests in life – namely pussy, money, and weed – and Schoolboy Q drops a master class in the importance of cadence. “Hell,” one of the two Clams Casino beats on the album, is a characteristically lush tune that oscillates between piquing the listener's interest and lulling him or her into a hazy head-nod. It's a great beat but it's Santigold's chorus that makes the track something worth returning to. Her voice has immediate personality and a feeling of humanism that one doesn't often get with Rocky's verses. Rocky is by no means a great rapper, and perhaps he knows that, because he has become adept at crafting a potent musical aesthetic that doesn't rely solely on his persona. The albums best moments are as much about Rocky as they are about the supporting cast that he has chosen.
When Long.Live.A$AP is in its stride it is a pleasure to behold. “Goldie,” the albums long-established gem, is no less satisfying now than it was nine months ago. Hit-Boy morphed his production style perfectly for the track and Rocky takes advantage of it, unleashing some of his most stylistically interesting rapping of the album. The track has the kind of charisma that A$AP's fans have tightly latched onto. It is almost anti-substantive; a kind of selective apathy that champions anything smooth and stylish. A$AP captured it well when he said “we know our shit stink, but you can’t tell us that because we feel like we do what we do. Fuck your laws, fuck your rules and boundaries and limits. We do us.” It's this sense of bravado that seeps into his music generally, and tracks like “Fuckin Problems” in particular. A searing ode to insatiable lust, “Fuckin Problems” probably won't be played at a SlutWalk anytime soon but it's vicious energy makes it a standout on the album. 2 Chainz's chorus is like a series of gunshots. Akin to something from Danny Brown or Clipse in the HHNF days, the chorus is a burly combination of repetition, alliteration, and unpolished drawl. The album keeps up its rapid pace with “Wild For the Night” but the collaboration with Skrillex feels forced (it's clear that the beat wasn't originally meant for Rocky). The song feels especially out of place alongside “1 Train,” a posse cut that revisits the fundamentals of the genre. Over a spare, haunting beat, the rappers trade verses, each one trying to outdo the other. It's a buffet of rewind-worthy lines and a reminder that Rocky does indeed have great taste.
Long.Live.A$AP struggles during moments when the beats are bland and Rocky seems to have nothing all that exciting to say. “Fashion Killa” opens with the lyric “rockin, rollin, swaggin to the max/ my bitch a fashion killa she be busy poppin tags.” It's an incredibly mediocre line that immediately makes the track feel amateur. Even on songs when he has the opportunity to bring the gravitas, Rocky will rarely stray from the themes of ego, women, and success. In the midst of crafting a series of strong images on “Suddenly” he feels the need to remind the listener that they shouldn't view him “as no conscience cat this ain't no conscience rap/ fuck the conscience crap a MAC could push your conscience back.” There's something to be said for this approach to rapping. One might argue that it's pretentious to assume that rap needs to be conscientious in order to be interesting. That may be true. However what good rap does need to do is tell a compelling story. Rocky has a story to tell. He grew up in and out of shelters. His dad was arrested. He lost his brother. But it seems that those are not the stories that Rocky wants to focus on. He wants to look to the future, rap about his newfound success and how now everything is going to be different. It's understandable, and it results in the kind of lyricism that is playful, quotable, and generally palatable; but it is ultimately kind of boring.
“When you don't give a fuck, you're happy like me.” That quote is the ethos of A$AP Rocky. He makes music that connects with a prominent niche of the millennial generation – a group of hyper-connected, jaded, apathetic, self-deprecating, stoned, intelligent, party-loving people. Long.Live.A$AP is likely exactly what they were hoping for. It's a series of fuzzed-out bangers that are exceedingly stylish and feature some of the best young rappers working. It builds on the promise of his mixtape, extends itself into new territory, and in the process reveals some of the shortcomings of Rocky's craft. His style and confidence may be magnetic but his personality, who he actually is, doesn't penetrate the hazy synths. Still, these critiques are an attempt to intellectualize an album thats main purpose is to inspire you to “not give a fuck.” Taken as such, it's an enjoyable listen that will enrich countless smoke sessions for years to come. There are those that think Rocky is capable of more but if they were to suggest it to him I'm sure he would happily tell them to go fuck themselves. [B]
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