In hip-hop’s ongoing battle between style and substance, Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky is a convincing argument for style as substance. With his Alexander Wang-styled videos, his penchant for drop-crotch pants, his ear for opulent beats and his constant insistence that he is, in fact, a “pretty motherfucker,” he’s turned taste into a higher calling. An often bland cipher of a personality, he’s not so much interested in representing a world view, telling a story or expressing an emotion as much as he wants to assemble an identity through the process of curation. That means he draws from a variety of classic hip-hop regions and eras (Dipset’s Harlem, DJ Screw’s Houston, No Limit’s New Orleans) while still retaining an interest in modern pop trends (trap, cloud-rap, dubstep). Rocky is nothing if not an aggressively serviceable rapper, and Long.Live.A$AP, his major-label debut, is both cunning and desperate in its attempts to please every possible demographic without looking like it’s trying too hard.
Similar to modern day rap fat-cat Rick Ross, Rocky has the means to build a dream-team of producers and guest rappers, but while Ross has learned to take pleasure in blurring the line between fact and fiction, crafting grandiose punchlines that land like velvet anvils, Rocky is still struggling to create a persona beyond “cool guy who likes cool stuff.” Occasionally a striking image or a personal detail will emerge beneath the posturing and the brand names—like the “cookouts and dirt-bikes” on closer “Suddenly”—but for the most part he sounds petulant and arrogant or dazed and disinterested. He toggles between those two modes on the album’s first half, finding the most resonance on the Clams Casino-produced tracks like “LVL,” where he explains his approach to branding by saying, “Kneel and kiss the ring/All hail the king/A$AP put that on everything.”
The album reaches its most delirious peak at its center, deep within its most potentially problematic area: its pop experiments. “Fuckin’ Problems,” the second single, writhes with vaguely menacing sexuality, thanks to a hook from skeeze-kingpin 2 Chainz and production from frequent Drake collaborator Noah “40″ Shebib. Sure, Rocky gets the first verse on the song, but he feels like an afterthought. For other rappers it might be embarrassing to take a backseat to your more famous collaborators—Drake steals the track, and Kendrick Lamar delivers an adroit yet lifeless verse—but Rocky seems content with stepping back for his more engaging guests, like the host of a party who chills in the corner, smiling to himself and fielding texts from friends who might show up later. This becomes even more apparent on “Wild For The Night,” the much ballyhooed Skrillex team-up, which is about as ridiculous as you’d expect but also a lot of fun, mostly because the DJ does everything short of shaving part of Rocky’s head. With its piercing lasers, its dramatic drops and its burping organs, it’s the perfect soundtrack for that Disney movie about gerbils that work as secret agents for the government. I think that’s a compliment.
Rocky’s tendency to recede into the background serves him less well on pseudo-era-defining posse cut “1Train,” which quickly devolves into a well-intentioned pile-up. Over a string-heavy, RZA-like beat from Hit Boy, who also produced the album’s lead single, “Goldie,” Rocky assembles a transparently zeitgeist-chasing group of rappers—Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Big K.R.I.T.—and lets them run wild on the track, leading to a meandering, directionless mess. Even Danny Brown saying, “Bitch pussy smell like a penguin/Wouldn’t hit that shit with my worst enemy’s penis,” can’t save it. Similarly awkward pairings, like the airy, piano-driven psych-rap of Danger Mouse’s “Phoenix” and the stoned nut-grabbing of the Schoolboy Q-featuring “PMW (All I Really Need)” fair better. Rocky even sings at moments, suggesting a type of vulnerability that’s hard to find in his technically impressive but empty verses, which provoke more questions than answers.
Is he post-regional? Is he post-truth? Is he post-internet? Rocky perhaps described his own enduring appeal in a recent Pitchfork interview when he said, “I made it acceptable to wear braids and play JFK.” While that statement initially scans as nonsensical, it reveals how Rocky views the world: as a series of aesthetic blocks to be selected, maneuvered and placed in a video. The iconography of JFK, the legacy of New York rap, the influence of Lil B, the laces on a pair of new designer shoes, the braids on his head—these elements carry an equal weight for Rocky. And, what do all these signifiers spell out when laid out across an album? A$AP. Put that on everything.