Harlem hip-hop's "pretty motherfucker" returns with an eclectic second album let down only by playground misogyny
What with Kanye’s messianic ravings and Kendrick Lamar taking himself to church, hip hop’s been having an hallelujah moment of late. Now A$AP Rocky is back with ‘At.Long.Last.Rocky’ – ‘ALLA’ to its friends – a second studio album its creator intends to signal the “return of the god MC”. But what would the gospel according to Rakim Mayers look like, anyway? After all, this is a man whose alleged sexual rap sheet would have Jay off The Inbetweeners raising a brow of suspicion. A man so vain, his most widely publicised beef to date was with a fashion label.
The answer lies somewhere between the lines of ‘ALLA’. Opener ‘Holy Ghost’, with a widescreen production turn from that seasoned vet of major-label melancholy, Danger Mouse, finds Rocky complaining that “the game is full of slaves and they mostly rappers” – surprising, from an MC who once jokily promised to mow down ‘conscious’ rappers with his machine gun.
But ‘ALLA’ is mired in real-life tragedy, too. In January this year, Rocky lost his friend and mentor, A$AP Yams, who was instrumental in minting his chopped-and-screwed style of hedonistic rhymes set to tastefully twisted beats, to a fatal drug overdose. Yams’ ghost is felt in tracks like ‘Canal Street’, which flips from rote misogynistic fare about getting head under the office desk to a jolting line about how “your favourite rappers’ corpses couldn’t measure my importance” – something on your mind, Rock? – and ‘JD’, which sees the rapper compare himself to tragic Hollywood icon James Dean. ‘Jukebox Joints’, instantly recognisable as Yeezy’s handiwork, finds Rocky unrepentantly proclaiming “I’ll be damned if I die sober” before sneaking in a disclaimer: “When my death calls / I hope the Lord accepts collect calls”.
Such moments reveal a thoughtful side to Rocky that sadly fails to show elsewhere (‘Better Things” tawdry attack on Rita Ora, of all people, is pathetic and not worth reprinting here). But it’s beats that made Rocky the big-ticket draw he is today, and on that front ‘ALLA’ doesn’t disappoint. Trippy and soulful, the absence of A-grade production talent like Clams Casino and Noah Shebib is barely felt: ‘Canal Street’ is a masterclass in affecting minimalism, ‘Excuse Me’ makes terrifically surreal use of a Platters sample, and ‘Electric Bodies’ is a class-A ballers’ anthem with an uncredited cameo that sounds awfully like Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker. ‘LSD’, a woozy ode to psychedelics with just a hint of sadness buried beneath the surface, does a supremely stylish job of reinventing Rocky as an R&B crooner.
Inevitably, the record suffers from being overlong, and the expected galaxy of guest spots is a mixed blessing at best (Kanye and MIA phone in their verses, Future and Lil Wayne steal the show). But, playground misogyny aside, ‘ALLA’ is a thrillingly focused follow-up that betrays its anxieties even as it mostly makes do with extolling the virtues of vice.