The move from mixtape to major-label album is a tricky one. In hip-hop, the risk of releasing an overly commercial official debut is the new sophomore jinx. Some great rappers — B.o.B, Wiz Khalifa, Wale, Big K.R.I.T — have suffered from the label debut yips. Those who manage to escape the curse find themselves in an elite class, and 24-year-old Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky has joined these esteemed ranks.
“Long.Live.A$AP” arrives after a year of delays, and while it is not a magnum opus, it’s not a disappointing grab at crossover success, either. Anyone who enjoyed the opulent beats and incredible feats of rhyme that defined Rocky’s critically acclaimed 2011 mixtape “Live.Love.A$AP” and dug the luxe, hi-octane, single “Goldie” should enjoy most of “Long.Live.A$AP.”
He continues to take flak for putting production and lyrical delivery above all else, a style some say isn’t intellectual enough — at least not for a rapper from New York, one whose mother named him for a hip-hop legend (he was born Rakim Mayers) and who had the sort of painful childhood that most would plumb for subject matter. As an adolescent, Rocky watched his father go to prison, lost his brother to a bullet and lived in a homeless shelter for a stretch.
But the lightness for which Rocky is often blasted is what helps him nail this release. Knotty lyrics about partying and fashion combined with psychotropic production — isn’t that what commercial hip-hop in this day and age is all about? No mainstream makeover necessary.
While Rocky is an A&R man’s dream on the surface, careful listeners will find that his music isn’t so much celebratory as darkly exultant. From his impeccable ear for chilling beats (see Clams Casino’s car-ad-on-quaaludes track for “LVL”) to his insistence on dropping at least one gun reference on every party jam (even on “Wild for the Night,” a track produced by dubstep superstar Skrillex, he mentions his pistol) his life experience does come through in his art.
Rocky has said the flashy style that he and his A$AP Mob collective favor is inspired by Harlem’s brash, flamboyant Dipset crew, which reigned during the late ’90s, rather than the grittier style of Harlem rappers such as Big L. The influence is obvious, from his avant-garde fashion choices to his public stunts (like grabbing a handful of Rihanna during a performance with the pop star at the MTV Video Music Awards) and is most clearly reflected in how he gives playful music a sinister edge.
“[Expletive] Problems,” with Drake, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar, is currently a (heavily censored) commercial smash on which Rocky talks a little greasier than his featured guests. The topic is women, but Rocky can’t help but toss out this line: “All these [expletive] wanna dress like me/Put the chrome to your dome, make you sweat like Keith.”
But on the self-produced “Suddenly,” Rocky delivers the sort of substantive street tale he’s accused of dodging, offering up a flurry of childhood memories, good and bad, at breakneck speed: “We had cookouts and dirt bikes and dice games and fistfights/And fish fries and shootouts like one sig with two rounds/And click left two down, that’s four kids but one lived.” He quickly qualifies the evocative verse, though: “Don’t view me as no conscious cat/This ain’t no conscious rap.”
Despite the perception of Rocky as favoring fluffier material, there is really only one moment of pure mindlessness on “Long.Live.A$AP.” If the album had been battered with a pop crossover stick, like so many major-label rap debuts before it, every song would sound like “Fashion Killa,” an appreciation of ladies’ clothing that seems like Rocky’s attempt to nab a performer slot at the next televised Victoria’s Secret runway show: “Her attitude Rihanna, she get it from her mama/She jiggy like Madonna, but she trippy like Nirvana,” Rocky raps.
Ugh. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff — but the man does have a reputation to uphold.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.