, January 22nd, 2013 07:23
What are we supposed to make of this: a New York City rapper with a sound more Houston than Harlem, affiliated with a vaguely violent namesake crew, comfortably conversant in the chic fashion fringes, seemingly enamored of unconventional productions and downright improbable collaborators? The most nebulous major-label rapper in recent memory, A$AP Rocky has accomplished so much without the benefit of a neatly summarized narrative. Neither the borough's best emcee nor anywhere near its worst, his rise appears based on some gaseous confluence of lofty A&R hopes, social media savvy, and fortuitously unchecked hype. After a handful of mixtapes - both solo and with the A$AP Mob - and now an official full-length debut, Rocky remains enigmatic to the point where one might feel compelled to question whether there's any substance there at all.
And so what? With New York's undeniable rap legacy comes a self-serving tendency to expect and invest too much in new artists, which has caused far more 21st-century implosions and flameouts than success stories. Despite the considerable grousing of a number of stubborn holdouts, rap's shift from the regional to the national has also de-emphasized the dominance of lyricism, yielding a slew of spitters more aesthetic than illmatic. Waka Flocka Flame, for example, may not rhyme on the same level as Jay-Z or even Lil Wayne, but the Atlanta native reps a sound that feels as though it belongs to him. Even though he bears the symbolically loaded birth name Rakim Mayers, demanding that Rocky be the next Biggie Smalls discounts the past five years or so of American hip-hop music.
At just 24, those last few years clearly mean a lot more to Lord Flacko (a nickname that seemingly speaks volumes to his loyalties) than what came before it. On the heady, hedonistic Long.Live.A$AP, Rocky appears so eager to distance himself from New York's rap conservatism that he doesn't even give his own mobsters - including the talented A$AP Ferg - a chance to shine outside of a deluxe edition bonus track. Instead, he recruits sparingly from the left coast, tapping Los Angelenos Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q of the Black Hippy collective, among others as disparate as hipster veteran Santigold and EDM whipping boy Skrillex. The album's only apparent radio hit, 'Fuckin' Problems', packs 2012 rap radio mainstays 2 Chainz, Drake, and the aforementioned Lamar so deeply that Rocky inadvertently sounds like a guest on his own single. '1 Train', the rare instance where other New Yorkers get at some bars, is a schizophrenic Wu-Tang-sized posse cut of hungry budding outer-borough stars (Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson), the already popping (Big K.R.I.T., Lamar again) and, um, Yelawolf.
Beyond these guests, though, A$AP Rocky largely goes it alone, buoyed by a handful of progressive producers all too willing to satiate his outre predilections. A major contributor to Rocky's breakthrough mixtape, Clams Casino comes through yet again with some gauzy drug thug cloud trap business on two standout cuts. The narcotized 'LVL' stutters and bumps in contrast to Rocky's peppy Outkast-referencing flow, while 'Hell' relies on wavy synth pads that sometimes recall M.I.A.'s 'Paper Planes'. Hit-Boy, best known for Kanye West-helmed triumphs 'Clique' and 'Niggas in Paris', delivers the quirky, esoteric 'Goldie', with a dominant loopy melody that would challenge just about any rapper. A haute couture hymn that callowly conflates true romance with luxury goods materialism, the Hector Delgado-Flacko collaboration 'Fashion Killa' somehow soars as Rocky's genuine love song, albeit one that shamelessly namedrops Rick Owens and Jil Sander alongside more commonly cited aspirational brands.
An absorbing, immersive listening experience, Long.Live.A$AP outshines the recent full-lengths of technically more proficient rappers as well as those of strikingly safer hip-hop hitmakers. Though the absence of former ally Spaceghostpurrp is certainly felt, Rocky has amassed such an impressive collection of beats that the temptation to skip a song never arises. Such ingenuity is befitting an apparent aesthete like Rocky who, like the stylish Kanye before him, fully if perhaps cynically knows that the devil is in the detailing.