“We’re so trendy, we can’t even escape ourselves.” – Kurt Cobain
She jiggy like Madonna, but she trippy like Nirvana -- cause everything designer. – A$AP Rocky
A$AP Rocky is trendy. He’ll be the first person to tell you so. It’s actually half the hook to “Fashion Killa.” And it’s not bragging if you can back it up. Live.Love.A$AP dropped in 2011, the Harlem rapper intuitively understood how to ride the wave. It was more than heavy absorption of Max B. It was an innate gift to distill screwed-up Houston rider music, the macabre Memphis bounce of early Triple Six Mafia, the double-time of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the cumulus smoke instrumentals of Clams Casino, Burn One and Beautiful Lou. He was less pioneer, more perfector.
There are benefits to being trendy. Innovators rarely reap the full rewards of the patent. The germ of inspiration is often co-opted by slick marketers, larger brands, or just outright improved. Sometimes tastes just take a while to catch up. Ray Kroc capitalized on the McDonald’s brothers’ carnivorous efficiency, but you can’t knock his savvy. Jay-Z, arguably the greatest rapper of all-time, has swag dracula’d styles and schemes from everyone from Notorious B.I.G., Nas, and Big Daddy Kane, to Young Chris.
"Rocky might lack the quotables of a 2 Chainz or the spellbinding narratives of Kendrick Lamar, but no one is as smooth. He understands which way the wind (or whomever) is about to blow."
Even perma-trendy corpse Kurt Cobain -- whose name pops up on two different songs on A$AP Rocky’s major label debut -- openly admitted to cribbing from the Pixies. How many underground disco groups did Lucky Star-era Madonna jack her jigginess from? Nas might have told Jay-Z that he loved god’s son’s style, but he also pointed out that there’s nothing new under the son.
A$AP Rocky wasn’t first to be second, but he’s still forged his own aesthetic. Tumblr teems with rappers tagging albums as “Trillwave.” They’re generally terrible. Rocky makes things look easier than they appear. He cruises between opiated but aware, emotional but hard, technical but rarely tedious. He might have pirated similar torrents as Odd Future, Lil B, and Spaceghostpurrp, but Rocky writes catchier and more polished songs. That’s why he got a multi-million dollar deal before he released his first mixtape. And as Arnold Schwarzenegger once pointed out: You can’t teach charisma.
With his official RCA/Polo Grounds debut, Rocky’s goal is obvious: consolidate the sound (and fanbase) of his first mixtape without watering it down for mass audiences. He needs to balance “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with the occasional “Territorial Pissings.” And for the most part, he succeeds. Long.Love.A$AP is essentially the mixtape, but upgraded to the latest Ferrari. It is very much an A$AP Rocky record: there are the suicidal struggle cuts (“Phoenix,” “Pain”) the bangers (“Ghetto Symphony,” “Goldie,” “1 Train,”) the Schoolboy Q song (“PMW (All I Really Need)" ) and the Clams Casino platters (“Hell, LVL”).
Few rappers are more memorable at saying unmemorable things. Most of Rocky’s lyrics involve some permutation of him being trill, sipping lean, toting a pistol, driving a sports car while getting head from your bitch, my bitch, and everybody else’s pretty bitch. He, himself, is a pretty motherfucker. Big difference. Rocky might lack the quotables of a 2 Chainz or the spellbinding narratives of Kendrick Lamar, but no one is as smooth. He understands which way the wind (or whomever) is about to blow.
There are attempts to add weight to the cloud rap. The first verse of “Suddenly” finds him rapping nostalgic about the “park bench playing checkers, sipping nectar/ Girbaud jeans with hologram straps and reflectors.” But almost immediately he checks himself by saying, “Don’t view me as no conscious cat/ This ain’t no conscious rap/ Fuck the conscious crap, my mac’ll push your conscience back.”
It’s probably a wise move. The deep songs end up feeling as awkward as most 24-year olds (if not everyone) get when they self-consciously write “deep” things. “Phoenix” is a noble attempt to articulate despondency, but it won’t exactly make you forget “Suicidal Thoughts.” It also features the line “Kurt Cobain died because you scrutinized,” which is either revisionist history or Rocky doesn’t give Courtney Love’s insanity enough credit. It proves once and for all that if rappers are going to insist on name-dropping artists they’re going to have to know more than Basquiat and Picasso.
"Rocky needed to be this year’s model and he has succeeded."
The record’s other missteps occur when Rocky ignores the difference between stylish and trendy. From a business standpoint, “Fucking Problem” was brilliant. Get a producer with hit in his name (Hitboy) and pair him with Rocky and three of the hottest rappers out (Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and 2 Chainz). It probably blew a quarter of the recording budget, but cracked the Top 40 and established Rocky as a legitimate radio artist. But both hook and concept feel focus-group-tested. On the plus side, it has supplied the sex addicts of America with their own anthem. (As I type, people are checking into rehabs, playing “Fucking Problem” to sex therapists and being like “this is it, Doc. This is my Life.”)
The other double dribbles are “Fashion Killa“ and “Wild for the Night.” The former is the sonic equivalent of looking back at a photo of yourself in Size 42 Phat Farm khaki cargo pants and wondering why you used to dress that way. Rocky basically recites a litany of different luxury fashion brands in a way that makes “Wu-Wear: The Garment Renaissance” seem comparatively timeless. But it will probably be some 14-year-old future sorority girl’s favorite song.
“Wild For the Night” proves that friends shouldn’t let friends rap over bro-step. It will inevitably get Rocky the allegiance of the molly-whopped, but it’s fated to be as immediately dated as the time Eminem bragged about wanting to sit next to Carson Daly and Fred Durst at the VMAs. In 20 years, kids will look back on the Girls Who Look Like Skrillex Tumblr, the way we look back on Hammer pants. This can be their soundtrack.
None of these questionable outfits matter much. A$AP Rocky might make the occasional over-stoned decision, but he rarely spills any weed on the ground. LongLiveA$AP is a well-executed and well-rapped album. Even the errors seem intentional. And the guest list is as stacked as Ocean’s 11. In that respect, it reminds you of Puff Daddy’s No Way Out or The Game’s Documentary. It balances the maximal and with 9mm melancholy. Rocky needed to be this year’s model and he has succeeded. There’s no need to escape yourself as long as you stay trendy.
Long.Live.A$AP. is out 1/15 via A$AP Worldwide/Polo Grounds.