It’s full of Rocky’s freaky comatose sound, but predictable lyrics and a weaker voice than his A-list guests occasionally let it down
So the story goes that when A$AP Rocky (real name Rakim Mayers) was a baby, his mum saw legendary rapper and namesake Rakim at some traffic lights, ran over, and asked him to sign her child’s nappy. Thanks to lucky ink, or perhaps nominative determinism, the 24-year-old Rocky is now leading a self-styled “new Harlem renaissance” with a $3million record deal and one of the most anticipated albums of 2013.
Quick recap. 2011’s mixtape ‘LiveLoveA$AP’ shot Rocky into the critical consciousness. Although influenced by hip-hop from all over the US, his syrupy, chopped and screwed beats were unmistakably Houston, but combined with the boom-bap of his home city. New York hasn’t produced any new, ultra-commercially successful rap artists of late (though Angel Haze is promising), with big names like Rick Ross, Lil Wayne and Kanye West coming from the south and elsewhere in the US. Will Rocky bring the limelight back to hip-hop’s birthplace?
Opening track ‘Long.Live.A$AP’ sets the scene with a lengthy thunderclap. “I thought I’d die in prison”, A$AP begins, before describing growing up in shelter homes surrounded by drug abuse and life in the ghetto. A surprisingly gentle falsetto (“Who said you can’t live forever lied”) that isn’t as gorgeous as Frank Ocean’s but isn’t half bad softens the dark melodies and darker content.
From the off, there’s a lot going on. In Rocky’s own words, on the quietly audacious ‘LVL’: “Get your popcorn, juice, snacks/It’s a movie nigga, with a new cast”. And as casts go, it’s A-list. Ready? Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz, Drake, Big KRIT, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$, Gunplay and Florence Welch all appear over production from Hit-Boy, Clams Casino and Danger Mouse. Plus Skrillex. Can anything possibly go wrong?
In spite of this powerhouse roll call, Rocky’s sound is overwhelmingly present: narcotic, comatose, sinister, freaky, with heavy jazz keys, low BPM beats, the occasional bleepy synth and vocals tuned down to a toad’s orgasm.
Lyrical themes, however, are predictable. In short, it’s pussy, money and weed, as laid out on ‘PMW (All I Really Need)’. But swag can get boring. You won’t find genius wordplay on ‘Long.Live.A$AP’. You won’t be wowed by flow or clever turns of phrase; wit and nuance have no place here. Compared with Kendrick Lamar’s coherent narrative on last year’s ‘Good Kid mAAd City’, it veers on the banal. Rocky has “pussy on a Sunday, fitness on a Monday” (‘Ghetto Symphony’) his outfit was in Vogue and, yes, he’s a “pretty motherfucker”. “The future will be televised” on ‘Pain’, meanwhile, will win clichéd lyric of the year, and ‘Fashion Killa’, although one of the album’s most infectious tracks, tells us nothing but the designers he favours. Still, he shines when he goes into detail on the story with a message on ‘Suddenly’, showcasing his quick-rhyme style at best.
But, essentially, if your lyrics lack substance you need to have a voice like Busta Rhymes or Q-Tip. Rocky doesn’t – and it’s clear when he raps alongside that guestlist. Whatever you think of Danny Brown’s content, his cartoonishly enunciated flow is easy to pick out. Rocky’s weaker voice is shown up by Brown and pals on the all-star ‘1 Train’, by Gunplay on ‘Ghetto Symphony’ and by Drake on the album’s second single, ‘Fuckin’ Problems’. The (Deluxe Edition) album closes with Rocky playing supporting actor to Florence’s show-stealer in ‘I Come Apart’. Does it matter? After all, it’s pretty much what Dre did on ‘The Chronic’. But there are other missteps. The Skrillex collaboration ‘Wild For The Night’ is a dialled-in, obnoxious turd and Santigold’s ‘Hell’ is incoherent filler, and there are some unpleasant misogynistic lyrics, such as “take her back just to bust in her mouth and I’m kicking her out” from ‘PMW’, or “turn a dyke bitch out”, and “got a bitch on my shoulder, got another on a sleeve”, from ‘Fuckin’ Problems’.
Criticism aside, Rocky’s debut is full of superb moments and offers a rich tasting menu of unique sounds. “We’re bringing hip-hop to another state,” he said about himself and his A$AP Mob recently. As long as he has other talent backing him up, that state will be worth visiting.