, August 22nd, 2013 09:31
New York hasn't had a Wu-Tang quality rap dynasty in quite awhile. Hell, even a Dipset quality one would be nice. In recent years, the city that birthed hip-hop and spawned several of its reigning champions has all but admitted rap game defeat, beset on all sides by Southern swagger, Chi-town cool, Cali sheen, and, believe-it-or-not, Toronto chic. How exactly the Big Apple fell out of favor is subject to debate, though arguably the G-Unit freefall of the mid-2000s left a radioactive void that’d give even Snake Plissken pause. Not to suggest that absolutely nothing of worth happened in the five boroughs in the interim, but, barring Jay-Z’s post-retirement albums that some people seem to enjoy, it took the likes of A$AP Rocky to get heads buzzing again.
Initially an online sensation with some key local radio support, Rakim Mayers busted through the blogosphere with his A$AP Mob in tow. As often happens in these situations, that ragtag bunch took a backseat to their breakout star and perceived figurehead as he churned through 2012 racking up accolades, performing live for all the right audiences, and scoring one of the year’s biggest rap singles, the 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar assisted banger ‘Fuckin’ Problems.’ Of course, if we’re being honest, Rocky’s success came in spite of New York, with mixtapes, singles, and full-length debut Long. Live.A$AP sounding a lot more like Houston than Harlem. That aesthetic, along with the choice to leave crew spitters like Ant, Nast, and Twelvvy off the album altogether, inadvertently put the Mob at a disadvantage, leading many to suspect and dismiss them mere weed carriers, a derogative term with literal and figurative implications.
Yet those who caught one of Rocky’s live shows or copped the more inclusive Lord$ Never Worry tape were bound to notice A$AP Ferg. His unique flow, influenced no doubt by the likes of hardened ghetto crooners Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Nate Dogg, felt immediately distinct from and complementary to Rocky’s. Ferg’s style melds staccato cadence, nasal trill, and affected patois for a tuneful, lilting, and somewhat unhinged delivery unlike any of his contemporaries. Bolstered by a grim, puzzling video, his infectious track “Work” emerged an underground hit, making Darold Ferguson Jr. the next in line for potential stardom. Following a major label signing, a strategic decision was made to load the track up with extra verses from French Montana, Schoolboy Q, Trinidad Jame$, and, naturally, Rocky himself. Needlessly messy, the resulting remix could have buried Ferg as a rework of “All Gold Everything” appears to have at least stifled if not suffocated Trinidad. But shortly after the swag anthem ‘Shabba’ dropped roughly a month ago on Funkmaster Flex’s influential program, it spiraled successfully towards wider radio play and Twitter meme-dom. Clearly, Ferg was no fluke.
Originally conceived as a mixtape, Trap Lord rightfully exists as a proper album, with thirteen tracks totalling fifty-one marvelous and misanthropic minutes. Judging by his verses, Ferg’s a hedonist, a lunatic, a streetwise savant whose hip-hop atavism rises above impersonation into something idiosyncratic and novel. Where Rocky found his muse down South, Ferg's amalgamous approach exudes preeminence. He’s both Mr. Loverman (‘4:02’) and gun-strapped gangster (‘Didn’t Wanna Do That’), with added personality quirks such as a preoccupation with gospel artist / Christian minister Donnie McClurkin. As implied by the album’s sacrilegious title, this latter trait swells like a case of elephantiasis on ‘Hood Pope,’ with Ferg’s metaphorical living god motif calling for cheeky exaltation or at least recognition over an elegiac beat. Even his smack talk delights, with jabs at cats in wrinkled suits (‘Let It Go’) and boasts of an inimitable style that can’t be copied at American office supply chain Kinko’s.
Though topically he’s mining many of the same themes and schemes as his peers, including high fashion name-dropping like couture aesthete Rocky, Ferg’s references can get fairly oblique, with abundant drug slang and inside jokes. (Without Googling, do you even know who Sheryl Swoopes is?) Beneath its clouded out veneer, ‘Cocaine Castle’ makes for the record's harshest, most honest assessment of that trap life. Behind the rubberized space funk of beatmakers High Class Filth and Subdaio lies a counterpoint to, if not a straight negation of, the clubby narco-fluff that's reduced trap to a t-shirt trope, a suburban standard imagined and abused by clueless fratboys, bottle service goons, and mixtape fakers that can’t fathom the come-up that facilitates the turn-up. Here, Ferg gives an unflinching tour of the cold realities of the crack house, a place whose powerful lure hooks reverends and whores alike. While it’s one thing to document and judge, in the final verse he turns the gun on himself, questioning his own dubious life choices of unprotected sex and anesthetizing drug use.
On a superficial level, however, one can appreciate Trap Lord purely for the musical ride should the lyrical side prove perplexing or vexing. ‘Make A Scene’ goes straight West Coastin' with skittering hats and metallic kicks for maximum speaker rattle, while ‘Dump Dump’ and ‘Fergivicious’ come subwoofer ready. Though perhaps Ferg’s shrewdest move was not to overload Trap Lord with features, his guestlist outside the ‘Work’ remix limited mainly to some of the most unsung and even forgotten artists of yesteryear. Nothing short of a coup, members of dormant Queens hardcore rap act Onyx and Cypress Hill’s B-Real appear on ‘Fuck Out My Face’ as if they’d never left. Topping this Lazarus act, four of the five Bone Thugs contribute to the melancholy ‘Lord,’ which closes with an incomprehensible albeit amusing Bizzy Bone benediction. Whether matching wits with these icons or someone from this decade, as with Waka Flocka Flame on ‘Murda Something,’ the interplay feels fluid and casual.
A Return To The 36 Chambers for Generation Molly, Trap Lord presents Ferg as a modern-day Big Baby Jesus just beginning to come off his court-mandated meds. He’s not completely gone off the rails, but there’s a glint of the coming madness in his eyes and in his gold-toothed smile. Mercifully, the album lacks any sort of transparent crossover overreach that typically turns rap records into disposable pap instead of meaningful products of their time. If anything, this glowering, sybaritic debut is so sui generis that it may alienate more listeners than it invites. Pray that you fall into the latter category.