TBTS Reviews: A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP (Deluxe Addition)
Can you remember the first time you ever heard hip-hop? I can. I was eight years old, and Ronnie, the eldest son of the lady who baby sat me after school, had come home from high school with a new album that he immediately proceeded to put on the family’s record player. It was Whodini’s Escape. Soon the needle began chewing through the first track, “Five Minutes of Funk,” and I knew, as soon as I heard it, that my life wouldn’t be the same going forward. My whole world had changed. To this day, I can recite, at a moment’s notice, the bulk of that song (and many others from that record) even without having listened to the old BASF tape I dubbed it onto in 15 years.
As a fan of the genre still, one thing I have come to love is being able to witness the myriad and surprising ways in which it has continued to grow in the past 30 or so years. I’m going out on a limb here, but hip hop might be one of the few distinct styles of music that has managed to maintain both a large-scale commercial presence and an extremely healthy and dynamic underground. Every 7-10 years, when the prevalent commercial sound has run its course, something new and slightly different percolates up from the underground and breathes new life in to the genre. One of the most exciting developments has been the break down of barriers separating the influences on/of hip hop and vice versa. Such break downs give me hope that we may be in the midst of, or on the precipice of, a new golden age in hip hop.
A$AP Rocky is one of those rappers who is in the process of moving from the underground to something with wider exposure, and his just released first studio album, Long.Live.A$AP, may be one of those that helps to redefine a sound. Though he hails from New York/New Jersey, A$AP’s core sound is something rooted a bit deeper in the Southern, syrup-infused rap of 3-6 Mafia. I first came across a single of his called “Purple Swag” that was one of the more interesting singles I’d heard in a long time, one that was almost a deconstructed version of the syrup-style. But there was little else out there to find on the likes of iTunes or eMusic. Then I discovered the mix tapes. From what little I had been able to gather about him, he takes his name from a larger group of rappers called A$AP Mob, many of whom also work with the MCs from Flatbush Zombies, another underground group that is exciting in the same way as was the early Wu Tang.
But that is all extraneous. Sonically, Long.Live.A$AP is a polished gem on another level, a showcase of a nice blend of contrasts, of slow beats and fast raps, and vice versa. To the casual listener, it might be easy to write off Rocky’s rhymes as being just more macho posturing that promotes rampant misogyny, drug abuse, and the pursuit of money. But a closer listen reveals a far more nuanced understanding of the material and lifestyle that’s being presented. And unlike other underground artists who have interesting lyrics and approaches to hip hop, but whose overall style seems somewhat stilted, Long.Live.A$AP is a much more fully developed album. By collaborating with the likes of Skrillex, Florence Welch, and Santigold, he manages to create a variety of sonic landscapes that are every bit as interesting and engaging as those produced without big name collaborations. By featuring fellow rappers like Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, and Yelawolf (among others), he has managed to surround himself with rappers whose styles and abilities are impressive in their own rights, but who also complement his style and ability extremely well.
I started off this review reminiscing about the first rap I remember hearing because it highlights to me, when listening to the small masterpiece that is Long.Live.A$AP, just how far hip hop has come. But I also mention this because a listen to A$AP will be a comforting experience for any long term hip hop fan — you will hear the new, but you will also hear snatches of past influences (3-6 Mafia and Wu-Tang just to name the two most apparent to me). In the hands of someone with middling talent and no real vision, these influences would come across as blatant rip offs. In the hands of someone with A$AP’s clear vision and deep skills, these influences are quickly transformed into something completely new and altogether intriguing.