Premature Evaluation: A$AP Rocky Long.Live.A$AP
There’s plenty to discuss on Long.Live.A$AP, A$AP Rocky’s official label-sanctioned debut album, but the first thing that jumps out at me is this: The power dymanic in the rapper/dance music producer collaboration has utterly flipped polarities in the last 15 years or so. Once upon a time, say, Redman would, out of nowhere, start rapping over a Roni Size track on the last song of one of his albums, and it would seem like the rapper was taking a weird chance, running the risk of losing his audience by putting them onto this crazy British computer-music. But now, when the Skrillex collab “Wild For The Night” suddenly parachutes into the middle of Long.Live.A$AP, it feels like both a gift from Skrillex and a rare grab for something beyond a core audience. Skrillex, right now, is a star in ways that Rocky will never be, and other than maybe Drake, he’s the most famous person involved in the album. And Skrillex does all he can to meet Rocky halfway — starting things off with a smoky reggae skank, throwing in copious amounts of screwed-up vocals, never quite giving one of his monster bass-drops — but its physical intensity and angry-Decepticon voices immediately set the track apart. I think the song is a lot of fun (no surprise there), and its the only track on the album I could imagine setting off a bunker-sized Midwestern club. But it also jumps out because it’s the one song that doesn’t seem built specifically for the oversize headphones of anyone who happens to be riding a subway train from a weed-spot to a Fashion Week invite-only soiree.
Long.Live.A$AP is, by and large, another example of a young rapper getting major-label carte blanche to represent himself completely on something that will, I guess, take up Best Buy shelf space. In Rocky’s case, that means the album fills the same dazed headspace as his LIVELOVEA$AP mixtape: Wafting clouds of synth, lightly smothered Southern-rap hi-hat tics, voices swallowed up in bass, loving descriptions of designer streetwear. The entire thing feels stylish — studiously so, its bursts of gun-talk as carefully curated as the insanely expensive designer labels namechecked throughout. Rocky mentions 2PAC constantly throughout, but I get the sense that Pac’s fuck-the-world intensity isn’t what drew Rocky in; it’s the sense that both he and Pac could probably have made livings as models if they wanted. He withholds in ways that Pac never could or would, projecting images and ideas rather than freely rattling off ideas. Long.Live.A$AP is a very carefully planned-out album, and it works on those terms, smoothly and cannily embodying a very specific type of lifestyle-rap.
Long.Live.A$AP is, in fact, such a complete piece of lifestyle-music that it practically plays like mid-’90s trip-hop. But it’s not Tricky-weird or Portishead-sad. Instead, the album reminds me of trip-hop B-teamers like Sneaker Pimps or Morcheeba — groups who smartly fused slick prettiness with hints of danger, and who were, as a result, inescapable in every decent clothing store for a year or two there. I like those groups. They had their place. And Long.Live.A$AP will certainly get more than its share of love in Manhattan’s finer shoe emporiums for the foreseeable future. It’ll sound great there because its surface pleasures are manifold. The way Santigold’s usually-irrepressible voice sinks into the fog-bank sadness of Clams Casino’s track for “Hell”: Gorgeous. The way Danger Mouse, of all people, smooths and streamlines that haunted cloud-rap aesthetic on “Phoenix”: Sublime. The way Rocky’s voice effortlessly melts into a singsong Bone Thugs double-time whenever he feels like bringing it out: Deeply impressive. But if you’re looking for pleasures beyond the surface ones, you probably won’t find them here.
Rocky is certainly a skilled rapper: Charismatic and haughty and able to put songs together without letting anyone see the seams. But his greatest failure is this: He is severely lacking in the personality department. Beyond the slight hint of club-queen bitchiness he gives off, I can’t tell you a single thing about him as a human being. Everything about him is very studiously considered; he’s clearly put in a ton of thought into how much time he should be spending talking about drugs vs. clothes vs. sex. He never seems like he needs to tell us anything. Compared to the smartly curated roster of guests who show up on the album, he’s practically one big blank. It’s impossible to imagine him summoning anything like Schoolboy Q’s hornball bluster, Drake’s dorked-out big-dick glee, Gunplay’s barely-contained insanity. The lineup of the massive and excellent posse cut “1 Train” is just nuts; eventually, major labels will throw enough money at these seven guys to finance at least one Avengers sequel. And not too surprisingly, the song quickly becomes a contest to see who can overshadow Rocky most completely. And on bonus track “Jodye,” Rocky takes aim at friend-turned-foe (and genuine weirdo) Spaceghostpurrp, he does it by aping SGP’s rap and production style almost completely. He can’t even dis a guy without becoming that guy first.
Honestly, though, that carefully maintained blankness should be more of a problem than it actually is. On paper, for instance, “Fashion Killa” should be a complete abortion; Rocky spends the entire track reeling off designer names over new age vocal gasps. But he makes it sound cool, his voice floating with the track and dissipating beautifully into the air. And that’s mostly what you get here: An album that breaks zero ground, that reveals zero personal truths, that rarely does anything we wouldn’t expect, but that works anyway. It’s not fair to compare it to Take Care or Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City or even Future’s Pluto; those are albums that attempt difficult things and succeed anyway. Long.Live.A$AP aims low, but it hits its target. Now that I’m done writing this review, I probably won’t think too much more about it, but I will listen to it plenty more.
Long.Live.A$AP is out 1/15 on RCA.