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‘Long.Live.A$AP’ marks the first full length statement of a rapper who was touted for success and signed to a $3 million deal before he even released his debut mixtape. Apparently unaffected by all the fuss, A$AP Rocky was sipping smoothies during interviews at his label’s head office on the day of the announcement and released a promising debut mixtape ‘Love.Live.A$AP’ about a week later to widespread acclaim. A year or so later, he’s been co-signed by just about everyone, has toured with Drake and is supporting Rihanna in her upcoming North American tour.
The prevailing response to this record is that Rocky sacrifices substance for style, either because he has none or for the greater reward of pop accessibility, blending his now-familiar regional touchstones – Bone Thugs, Three 6 and UGK – and pushing his hedonism to the forefront of his music. It can be presented as flaw in his craft, but it’s a simple fact. He isn’t a bad rapper – very early tracks like Out of this World show him to be an accomplished lyricist – but he has a light, slightly nasally voice and a melodic flow that is better suited to weaving along to soft, tactile beats than it is grappling with forthright boom bap. Furthermore, being a sharp aesthete with broad tastes, who came up when Max B and Jim Jones were running things at home in Harlem, there’s not much point in continuing the discussion into why he isn’t rapping like most other rappers from New York have been for the past couple of decades.
The issue with the album is not that it’s too stylish but about the nuances of its style. The Gothic ornamentation of the introductory title song, Long.Live.A$AP, sets the tone for the whole project with drugged introspection, vague political abrasions and vainglorious boasting; the opening statement “I thought I’d probably die in prison/Expensive taste in women” or the Goodie Mob-inspired “Strangers make me nervous/Whose that peeking through my curtains” wrapped in the bluster of thunder claps and codeine-slumped grunts concisely articulating his overall outlook. It’s a progression of the vivid cinematics of the A$AP Mob tape ‘Lord$ Never Worry’ rather than the street-level grit and gauzy shine of breakthrough hits like Peso and Purple Swag.
If anything, the album looks more to Drake’s Take Care than it does its much-vaunted 90s influences – with navel-gazing quiet storm replaced by navel-gazing horrorcore. Going for such a bold aesthetic is bound to polarise listeners, but Rocky seems less capable of managing his ideas and this leads to some questionable decisions. The previously fruitful collaborations with Clams Casino, like the soaring Palace or delicate and elegant Wassup from the mixtape, turn into the gloomy LVL and Hell. Clams Casino has pointed to the strong influence of Mobb Deep in the past but Rocky isn’t the ideal man to carry it. There’s also 1 Train, a posse cut with features so incongruous it’s really more a list of popular names than a single track in its own right – with A$AP Rocky coming across as a blog baiter rather than the Young Turk he was envisioning when he made it. The glaring woop of the Skrillex produced Wild For the Night and the shallow but endearing Fashion Killa (he does manage to fit Ann Demeulemeester in his catalogue of labels, to be fair) are more enjoyable and actually stronger than the “deeper” tracks, because at least they’re not too involved with heavy posturing.
His missteps are made all the more apparent by the nonchalant grace of the album’s triumphs, with the easy push of the singles Goldie and Fuckin Problems or T-Minus’s masterful synth slow whines on PMW (All I Really Need) with Schoolboy Q – a rapper he has a real chemistry with – standing out as clear highlights. If girls, gold and green are really all he needs, it makes his executioner threats and some of his painfully bad opening salvos even more confusing and frustrating. For someone who can promise something like a modernised version of the original jiggy everyman from Harlem with a dollar sign in his name or a polished update of Snoop’s ever-blazed affability, it’s an unfortunate stumble.
If you do what Rocky probably should’ve and ignore the pressure of finding that one statement, you get a strong collection of quite good to great songs, fine production plus the added bonus of a closing track that acts as the beautiful, introspective turn it deserves it be – “from ug-a-ly to comfortably, suddenly” – rather than a salve for too many Photoshop meanderings. Your appreciation of ‘Long.Live.A$AP’ will ultimately depend on how much you are taken by his overall project, but A$AP Rocky may have missed out on a bigger opportunity by forgetting that true style rests in something more than flourishes and thick atmospherics. A$AP Rocky’s best work to date is the result of his natural confidence coloured, rather than overwhelmed, by gimmicks, and the same is true of this album.