Much has been said about the state of New York hip-hop over the past decade, as Big Apple legacy acts like Nas and Jay-Z seem more interested in cashing in than creating iconic art. While Harlem based rapper A$AP Rocky doesn’t quite solve the problem on his debut album Long.Live.A$AP, he instead tilts the genre in a new direction, incorporating a world of styles that makes the disc more Times Square than Crown Heights.
In late 2011, the mixtape Live.Love.A$AP established the rapper as one to watch. Singles like “Peso” signaled the arrival of an unparalleled level of indie-rap production. It sounded like the city wrapped up in a neat package, but here, Rocky appears discontent to allow himself to be boxed in by his roots. Stepping behind the production decks on a few numbers-some of the album’s most coherent, explosive joints-he confirms a conversion from rapper to artist.
Several singles have been floating around the internet for months, like the Hit-Boy produced “Goldie” and recent smash single “F-ing Problems,” a pop-rap effort complete with cameos from Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and 2 Chainz. These songs do little to demonstrate the Pretty Flacko’s talent as a lyricist. They’ll draw in new fans for the former indie, now Top-40 superstar, but they lose their sheen in the album’s grand scheme.
Thunder crackles as Rocky jumpstarts the album on “Long Live A$AP,” rapping confidently “I thought I’d prolly die in prison / expensive taste in women / ain’t had no pot to piss in / now my kitchen full of dishes.” Meanwhile, Instagram addicted hashtaggers are bound to go wild for “1 Train,” a posse cut in which each rapper seems to think he’s participating in some sort of Hunger Games type competition, all trying to outdo the others. While Rocky holds his own, highlights on the blinking track include the nineties-minded New York teen Joey Bada$$, former meth addict turned Detroit icon Danny Brown, proudly overweight Jewish Brooklynite Action Bronson, and Georgia flash-spitter Yelawolf. It’s old school meets new school in a classic battle that explodes from its overabundance of egos.
The album’s real highlights are Rocky’s solo cuts. “LVL” crackles with previously unseen lyrical depth-laced with beats by Clams Casino-as Rocky ruminates about fame in a digital age. “Introduce you n-as to the new swag / n-as say a n-a blew up too fast,” he rhymes, exorcising some real demons in four short minutes. “Fashion Killa” celebrates the intermingling of the musical and clothing worlds, while “Phoenix” remembers a fall from personal glory. Meanwhile, deep cuts like “Jodye” and “Angels” are dark diamonds in the rough that also outline rough patches in the erstwhile flashy rapper’s history.
Rocky lends some fellow hip-hop heads a verse or two on the album, calling up Schoolboy Q, Gunplay, and A$AP Ferg from the minors, but the disc’s most interesting guest appearances result from two very incongruous stars. On “Wild For The Night,” a deep-voiced Rocky intones “middle finger to the critics / me and my n-a Skrillex / you know we finna kill it / A$AP / we the trillest” on top of drunken dubstep produced by the Canadian superstar. It’s a brash standout that some may label as selling out, but it’s hard to read the track as anything other than Rocky exhibiting his creativity and trying something that is, at turns, mildly revelatory. Meanwhile, on the bonus track “I Come Apart,” Florence Welch joins the swagged-out celeb on a rather lovely duet.
What sets Rocky apart from all other rappers is his ambition. On Long.Live.A$AP, the rapper refuses to shy from a challenge. He raps, he sings, he auto-tunes, and he produces. He invites in whatever guests make him happy, even if it might not make sense on paper. He reaches inward and boasts outwardly at the flip of a hat. He travels to New Orleans for a dash of ratchet and even mines the west coast for some chillwave. A true trendsetter, Rocky represents a new breed of rapper-self-assured but vulnerable, indie with an eye on pop. Industry dominance is in sight. Long live the new king.