One of rap’s brightest stars is ASAP Rocky. He’s young, beautiful, from Harlem and has released some of the best rap videos of the year, Purple Swag and Pesos, below. ASAP is the name of his crew, and it stands for Always Strive And Prosper, Accumulate Status And Power, Always Striving And Paperchasing, still Assassinate Snitches And Police, though his, significantly stands for Acronym Symbolise Any Purpose. He’s been around for about a year or so, releasing YouTubes and mixtapes with some his crew, as well as some of the brightest stars of the underground like Clams Casino and Main Attrakionz. He used to sell drugs, but stopped because it’s corny and anyone who says different are lying, as he spits in this Fader interview. For ASAP Rocky, being corny is the worst thing in the world, right after lying. On the bill of his cap in the video for Purple Swag is one word, white on black, in all caps: SILENCE, which is fitting, because underneath his breezy bluster is a stillness. There’s an elegance to his voice, a calm seriousness about rap’s beauty.
I was struck down when I heard his rapping for the first time. He’s part of a rap trend of focusing on personality, dexterity and honesty over thesaurus-digging. Rather his rhymes have a tendency to show off through sheer vocal power and articulacy, turning raps around three or four syllables: “That paint drip / I still tip / That pimp shit / she don’t plan to fuck / I pick her up / I still hit”, goes a verse on Purple Swag. Few of his raps would be quoted by those serious rap fans who learn MF Doom’s words (but ignore his message), but the light pride when he raps the hook “Harlem’s what I’m repping” is enough to sing out loud.
He calls himself a pretty motherfucker in almost every song, but this isn’t just physical bluster, it’s right down in every beat he chooses to rap over. A chest-out patriot of his city, as only someone transplanted can be (he moved to new Jersey last year), his heart sounds Houstonite, with his strongest songs indebted to the exquisite, brutal psychedelica of slowed down Texas screw tracks. Screw always sounded so sad to me. Orchestral in its sonic ambition, the desperation and hubris inherent in gangsta rap came to the front when the beat slowed and the melody chopped. But what ASAP Rocky does to this music is something very special – he adds the metropolitan bluster of his borough to this most pastoral of rap genres. My favourite Harlemites – Kelis, Kool Moe Dee, Dipset, the Bad Boy family – always had this flashiness about them, this shine. Ghetto fabulous was named by Sean Puffy Coombs right here, after all, and Tupac (born in the top of the island) chest puffed about being “too good-looking to be a thug”.
In ASAP Rocky’s hands, the Houston hubris is replaced by youthful swagger, the desperation turned into the mild, not-unpleasant melancholy of the mid-summer. The videos have a relation to the real street life that is so often mentioned or portrayed, but with none of the cliched misery – this is teenage life on the streets of New York, but fondly remembered. Cycling through the lazy street, coping booze, lighting up at a friend’s house – it’s a beautiful, bucolic vison, and you fall into it like a daydream. His raps neither concern themselves with the standard bling of the mega-famous nor the reality of tough life but his young, bright (and usually stoned) life.
Then there’s the delicacy thing – wrapping up words in a deep and clear and slightly nasal voice, he spits with tender force about his favourite labels, his home borough, getting high and his vanity (Only thing bigger than my ego is my mirror). I heard he’s an ex-fashion student, though I haven’t been able to verify much about his life, but it’s certainly interesting that he focuses so much on clothes, because there is a certain high fashion, so high it turns anti-fashion (the famously strictured Raf Simons and Rick Owens are his favourites, interestingly), strand to his music – a mysteriousness, a quiet smartness, an awareness of how much can be gained by leaving things out, a perfectionist streak to doing things just so. Without over-extending this metaphor, I’ve found it hard explaining why I’m so excited about ASAP Rocky to anyone who has asked this summer. Like a plain t-shirt the price of a fortnight’s rent, his music relies less on overt statement, rather on the resolute idea that something as disposable as clothing or a rap song about making money can be elevated to high art.
Noticeably absent are stories about how girls never fancied him before he was famous. It’s honest. The terminal insecurity of so many gangsta rappers turns into the entitled assurance that belongs to smart, talented young men who are used to being fancied. It’s interesting to think where he goes next – he’s already linked with Drake and there are reliable rumours about a hefty Sony contract already inked. This is on the back of the few incredible, remarkably odd songs, and one slightly patchy EP, and it remains to be seen whether the tension between tough and tender, between brutal honesty and avant garde can hold the pressure of a multi-mill deal. But right now, cards on the table, we have his back.