Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A$AP Rocky shows he's not to be trifled with on major label debut

Anyone who considers themselves a rap enthusiast must be encouraged by the influx of new talent streaming in. Harlem rapper Rakim Mayers, better known as A$AP Rocky, is making a strong push toward the front of the line. He's establishing himself in the industry the way many of his brethren are: with mixtapes. Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, most notably, have presaged highly successful albums with independently released mixtapes. Most notable is Rocky's $3 million record deal with Sony/RCA subdivision Polo Grounds Music, the fruit of which is his full length debut, LongLiveA$AP.

One thing this album does not do is try to be intellectual. In strong contrast to recent albums predicated delivering sociopolitical messages, like Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, or albums with strong thematic elements like Kendrick Lamar's Good kid m.A.A.D. city, Rocky's record doesn't make an effort to be lyrically deep. Rocky himself puts it best on album closer "Suddenly," declaring "don't view me as no conscious cat, this ain't no conscious rap/Fuck the conscious crap, my mac'll push your conscious back."

What LongLiveA$AP does do is display Rocky's boundless skill as a rapper. His delivery is loud, forceful and clear; he is able to spit rhymes with great rhythm and flow. It also serves as a great showcase piece for the youth rap movement. LongLiveA$AP rounds up most of the key names being shouted now within the indie community (with the obvious exception of the Odd Future collective).

But it doesn't take long to find Odd Future parallels. Album opener "Long Live A$AP" is an ominous and foreboding track that shows off Rocky's sense of paranoia. He asks, "who's that looking in my window with a pistol to my curtain?" With its stripped back beat and its introspective nature, it is reminiscent of Tyler, the Creator's "Yonkers." It features a surreal falsetto chorus that gets downright creepy near the end when a chorus of children's voices join in.

Lead single "Goldie" was a great choice as a teaser, as it highlights many of Rocky's critical strengths. The lyrics are not the most inventive of all time; it's mostly just him bragging. But the track succeeds not due to the subject matter, but because of how Rocky presents himself. He comes across as very focused, determined, and charismatic.It's not hard to believe he deserves the lavish praise, even though he's the one heaping it on himself. The flute beat is also great;  it gets out of the way and lets Rocky do his job but is distinctive enough to give a tangible coloring to the track. It makes Rocky feel outside the box and inventive, something many people disillusioned with the current state of rap are looking for.

Unfortunately, his penchant for unmemorable lyrics continues on the next track, "PMW (All I Really Need), which stands for pussy, money, weed. This is one of the most blatant, sexually explicit rap tracks since Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The verses have that sort of loud, in your face club quality that was best captured by Sean Paul. Schoolboy Q's guest appearance here is very effective,  as both rappers prove themselves as talented emcees. But lyrically however, there is no debating that this is one downright vulgar track.

One of the album's biggest strengths is that very few songs sound the same. On "Lvl" he mellows out considerably, slowing things down with a beat not unlike Aphex Twin's "Xtal," while "Hell" features Santigold sounding a bit like M.I.A. on the chorus hook. The song has a ravey beat, but it's slowed down and subdued to the point you wouldn't notice if you're not paying attention.It's like the record label wanted him to have a dancey club beat on a song, but he was embarrassed so he slowed it down and spliced it around hoping you wouldn't notice.

The seventh track, "Fuckin' Problems" is one of the most star studded on the album. 2 Chainz powers what is most certainly the catchiest hook on the album, while superstars Drake and Kendrick Lamar join Rocky in putting on a solid but not stellar performance  All three have dropped better verses in their career, and given the collection of talent one must wonder if they were more concerned with trying to wow their audience with name brand than they were with constructing the caliber of verses that won them name recognition in the first place. Yet even despite this, the song is still an easy album highlight.

Yet no track is more star studded than "1train," an effort that features so many guest rappers it would be too much to even list them all here. There is no hook, just six minutes highlighting the best up and coming talent in indie hip hop. The piece does an outstanding job of establishing the personality of each individual rapper, and in that regard it bears great similarity to Eminem's D12 pieces such as "Purple Hills" or "Under the Influence." All parties involved do a fantastic job, but honors for best verses go to Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, and Big K.R.I.T.

"Wild for the Night," featuring the always sensational Skrillex, is about as subtle as dropping a dishwasher on the listener's head. The real highlight, though, is Rocky's blistering spitfire verses. "Fasion Killa" is easily the lowlight of the album. His penchant for being fashion conscious  a common theme in many of his interviews, comes to full fruition here. He spends the entire time name dropping top shelf designers that no one outside of the Hamptons cares about or is impressed by. The lame hook doesn't help either.

Album closer "Suddenly" is the album's most startling song. It is very surreal, reflecting on how he went from living in the hood to all of a sudden being famous. The beat is almost nonexistent. In the background you have what sounds like TV cartoons from the 1950s playing, along with a chorus of singers from the the big band era. The first verse is slow and meandering but on the second verse he starts spitting faster and the effect, contrasted with the first verse, is pretty clever. Rocky has managed to bookend the album with two very mystifying, unsettling tracks.

Thinking back to the kids in high school who listened to Lil' John and Ludacris, it isn't hard to think their seventeen-year-old selves would be into something like this. However, to blanket lump him into this category would be selling Rocky short. LongLiveA$AP often sounds like it could be played at a club, without sounding specifically tailor made for that type of environment. He shows a great deal of creative potential, demonstrating that he can spit fast while mixing it up with a slew of mid-tempo tunes, and he often intersperses mellow R&B hooks throughout. He possess great command of his flow, while doing a supreme job of establishing a sense of personality.

But there is room for improvement. His lyrics could use some work, as the best of them do little to move rap forward and the worst are downright silly and sophomoric. He also has a tendency to rely on downpitched vocals too often, and some of the album drags. Ultimately, LongLiveA$AP  does not place him at the head of the young hip hop class, but does demonstrate he's a force to be reckoned with.

Score: 74/100

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