January 23, 2013

Test Spins: A$AP Rocky, LONG.LIVE.A$AP

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A$AP Rocky may be from Harlem — his given name is Rakim Meyers, in a nod to hip hop legend Rakim — but listening to Long.Live.A$AP, the much-hyped 24-year-old’s debut album, you wouldn’t know it.  The album, released only a year after his critically acclaimed mixtape, draws influence from sources both within and thoroughly removed from the world of hip-hop.

His music draws on Houston’s oozy chopped-and-screwed sounds, the confident, smooth flow of California gangster rap, and lyrical gymnastics that can clearly be traced to hip-hop staples like UGK.  In fact, with a few exceptions, like the choppy string-based loop of the album’s star-studded climax, “1train,” a homage to Wu-Tang Clan and the other legends of A$AP’s hometown, that New York sound is unrecognizable here.

A$AP travels far from his roots, bringing in producers that are known for their abilities to circumvent genre restrictions, like Danger Mouse and Skrillex, as well as Florence Welch, of Florence + the Machines. Welch seems somewhat out of place on this album that is colored with lyrical content worn out by genre-clichés, which is especially the case on the catchy but ultimately meaningless track “PMW” (you can guess what the acronym stands for).

Despite Long.Live.A$AP’s refreshing genre-and-geographic mishmash, unlike the other recent highly anticipated hip hop releases like Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, A$AP sometimes seems satisfied with the status-quo of bragadocious, catchy lyrics and surefire club hits that lack the substance to make this a truly substantial release. The intention of the album’s hit second single, “Fuckin’ Problems,” for example, is clear: there is no secondary motive behind the lascivious claims of debauchery.

Other times, though, A$AP reveals a subtle sense of self-deprecation that is a welcome change from the album’s often brainless premises. On one of the most promising tracks, “LVL,” A$AP employs one of his many aliases, “Mr. Pistol Popper,” over a groovy, trip-hoppy beat produced by Clams Casino, as he coolly utters, “fuck a copper.”  It isn’t clear whether this is coming from the mind of his ultra-ghetto alter ego or from A$AP himself, but this lack of clarity adds some much-needed ambiguity to lyricism that is often in need of it. However, “LVL” is the exception. Most of the time, A$AP is unambitious and seemingly content to achieve success in his lyrical comfort zone rather than trying to find any true clarity or meaning through his experiences.

In all fairness, though, A$AP’s rise to fame was nearly unprecedented. He has risen to fame in an era where rappers’, and musicians in general, rise to stardom is so rapid that there’s very little time to reflect on the journey they took to get there. It seems that A$AP’s near-instantaneous transition from the streets of New York to his current sublime lifestyle has left him bereft of a strong identity or any real ability to reflect deeply upon his past. As he nostalgically reflects in the album’s finale, “Suddenly,” he has gone “from ugly to comfortably … suddenly.”

Yet, scattered throughout the album there are hints that he has the potential to move beyond the played-out hit-making rhymes, be more than this album suggests, and take on a more serious role in the hip-hop community.  In “Hell,” another impressive Clams Casino-produced track featuring Santigold, A$AP declares, “heaven need a villain just like hell need a newer idol.” On “1train,” he claims to feel like “a villain or a missionary.” These juxtaposing lyrics cut to the heart of A$AP’s real issue: will he be tempted by the beckoning of high-grossing hits and “lightweight” rapping, or will he take the high road to success through a search for something more? Only time will tell, but for now, this album, while catchy, well-produced and impressively wide-ranging on the production side, falls short.

Original Author: Sam Bromer