A$AP Rocky Experiments with Production on Eclectic First Album

A$AP Rocky - Long.Live.A$AP - RCA Records - 3.5 STARS

Courtesy RCA

RCA Records

A$AP Rocky’s name has been on the lips of admirers and haters alike since he released his debut mixtape “LiveLoveA$AP” in 2011, and last month, the Harlem native further solidified his artistic persona with his debut album “Long.Live.A$AP.” The album is a celebration of the 24-year-old rapper’s versatility, paying homage not to the established greats of hip-hop, but to the young and novel voices popping up in the genre. Rocky places himself firmly at the fore of this wave of fresh faces, and while he does not have as compelling a message as others, his nimble verses make him worthy of a position of respect in modern hip-hop.

“Long.Live.A$AP” stands in stark contrast to other recent hip-hop releases, such as Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” with its extreme stylistic range within the genre. Where Lamar mined one style of rap to its greatest depths, bringing forth emphatic themes through sincerity and intensity, Rocky sets out on a more gleeful exploratory expedition. The album experiments wildly with production techniques, swinging from a pensive, minimal soundscape crafted by Clams Casino on “LVL” to the frenetic, aggressively kinetic laser bursts of Skrillex on “Wild for the Night” and refusing to settle on single aesthetic framework.

Rocky showcases his fluidity on each track—he sounds totally at ease on every one as he traverses wildly disparate sonic environments. His wordplay and cadence never show a hint of strain, evident as he lists designers against the glistening production of “Fashion Killa”: “I see your Jil Sanders, your Oliver Peoples/ Costume National, Ann Demeuelemeester/ See Visvim be the sneaker, Lanvin or Balmain.” Then a mere two tracks later, he is railing, “Fuck them other niggas, I’ll ride for my niggas, I’ll die for my niggas” over a murky, oppressive, Odd Future-esque beat on “Jodye.”

As Rocky lays his verse alongside those of his peers Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T. on “1 Train,” he captures the sense of a classic posse track, with a crew of young rappers delivering their best over an unassuming beat. This track unintentionally highlights Rocky’s less-than-virtuosic rapping ability, though, as it places him next to Big K.R.I.T. As K.R.I.T spits, “Walk the plank or break a bank, I’ve been in the business of sinkin’ ships / Chokin’ niggas out with the anchors that they anchor with,” he manages to deliver the lines with equal ease and aggression, and he stays perfectly on beat as he delivers blow after blow to his haters. In comparison, Rocky’s delivery and wordplay sound lackluster, but he maintains interest with a healthy amount of attitude and flair.

The album ultimately suffers from A$AP Rocky’s post-rap ethos, which manifests as an overreliance on style. “Long.Live.A$AP” is rife with provocative ideas and gripping hooks, but these elements drift about without the proper fundamentals to anchor them. The songs never progress past innovative to become compelling, as Rocky’s entertaining but aimless lyrics meander around each track. A distorted, demonic voice chants ominously on “Pain,” adding a stirring dark dimension to the track, but it rings slightly hollow without more substantive songwriting from Rocky. The contrast between the sinister, disembodied voice and Rocky’s rapping is never utilized for any real purpose; it is a superficially appealing device and never builds to anything more.

There is no strong narrative arc tying the album’s many ideas together, but “Long.Live.A$AP” does not want for one. As 2 Chainz gleefully informs us, “I love bad bitches, that’s my fucking problem / and yeah I like to fuck, I got a fucking problem” on “Fuckin’ Problems,” there can be no confusion as to whether or not the artists are enjoying themselves. What makes this album compelling is not inspired songwriting, but rather the bravado and spirit of the performers. Many of the tracks are quite simple thematically, and most fail to develop past their initial premise, but on tracks like “Fuckin’ Problems,” the listener cannot help but have fun as A$AP and company let loose with reckless abandon.

Rocky has more than enough panache to carry his first full-length album to success—”Long.Live.A$AP” stands as a testament to the young rapper’s flexibility and willingness to experiment musically. The tracks bounce from high to low energy at a rapid pace as Rocky skips effortlessly along on top of diverse beats on various tracks. What holds the album back is Rocky’s lack of lyrical structure and direction, as his writing lags behind his rapping and his thematic arc withers in the face of garish production. Rocky has put forth an album that serves as a good first step of a young artist, but leaves ample room for artistic growth.

—Staff writer Alexander Tang can be reached at tang@college.harvard.edu.

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