For whatever reason, Halloween was the day when just about half the rappers currently working decided to release mixtapes. As luck would have it, Halloween was also the day I moved to a new town, which means I still haven’t had time to check out too many of those tapes. Already, there’s been a whole lot of good stuff; the new Freddie Gibbs tape A Cold Day In Hell, for instance, is the sort of rock-solid, technically adept Midwestern gangsta rap that we’ve come to expect from the man, and it’s well worth your hard-drive space. And I’m sure some of what I haven’t heard is great; it’s entirely possible that, say, the new L.E.P. Bogus Boys tape is mind-crushing; if that’s the case, maybe I’ll write about it in this space next week. But the Halloween tape that’s left the biggest impression on me is also the one that was the subject of a ton of discussion before anyone had a chance to hear it. ASAP Rocky is probably the most hyped-up new rapper of the year; he’s generated more conversation than even, like, Kreayshawn. And, as luck would have it, his long-awaited debut mixtape delivers.
ASAP Rocky is a big deal. Before he’d even released this mixtape, he’d landed a reportedly ridiculously lucrative record deal and an opening spot on Drake’s upcoming big tour. He did that on the strength of a couple of viral videos, and that’s pretty much unheard of, even in the age of Tumblr rap. So in his vertiginous ascent, ASAP has captured a lot of imaginations and become a screen onto which a whole lot of people have projected their hopes and fears about the dawning internet-rap age. Here we have a young New York rapper — one who was actually named after NY rap god Rakim at birth — who claims not to like New York rap. Instead, he absorbs and internalizes aesthetic influences from across rap’s geographic landscape, he links up with the genre’s most blogged-about young producers, and he pays tribute to historic rap scenes (Houston, Memphis) that New York was happy to ignore until very recently. His crew also brings unapologetic Harlem-hardhead goon tendencies; they beat down a soundman at the FADER Fort during CMJ like they were Coolio in Minneapolis in 1992 (never forget) and, from what I’m told, sent the poor guy to the hospital. That’s definitively uncool, but it also serves to remind the world of Dipset’s dominant mid-decade run, and many of us have fond memories of that moment, to the point where shithead antics like that don’t end up hurting ASAP, career-wise. His videos are ecstatically fashionable, mesmeric things, and they’re compulsively watchable. All this is to say: ASAP’s managed to reflect a whole lot of ideas and visions through his persona, and that’s a lot for one young guy to take on. He had to make something special with this mixtape, or else the fickle rap internet would’ve gotten good and sick of him and moved onto some other avatar.
Well, he made something special. LIVELOVEA$AP isn’t a perfect mixtape, and it may not squeeze onto my year-end list. It is, however, an extremely well-put-together debut, one that expands ASAP’s world and makes it seem like a strange, inviting place. For one thing, it’s proved that ASAP and his handlers have excellent taste. They’ve corralled many of the best, most buzzy producers in our collective RSS feed — Clams Casino, DJ Burn One, Spaceghostpurrp — and figured out the common ground between ASAP and these guys. Together, these guys have all built a hazy, amniotic jazz-rap soundworld for ASAP; the whole tape rolls by with an effortless bliss. It’s pleasant music, and that’s something I can’t say about too much mixtape-rap. Some of the tracks here are just incredible. “Peso,” the hit, is sublime thump with an earwormy dancehall-reggae secondary hook that adds some serious understated menace. Clams Casino’s “Wassup” beat is the sort of wafting sunset boom that’s made him a favorite of people who don’t even like rap. Beautiful Lou’s “Trilla” track is one of the great tracks of the year, a masterful classic-Southern slow-crawl with a screwed-up Das EFX sample that won’t leave my head anytime soon. Throughout, we hear bits and pieces of laid-back Houston organ and Memphis goth-churn and Midwestern triple-time sing-rap, like all these disparate regional ideas have been floating around the heads of ASAP and his collaborators for years, congealing into a single blur of sound.
As a rapper, ASAP is mostly a blank slate, a vehicle for all this this gorgeous sound that surrounds him. He sounds like a whole lot of other rappers at once, and he knows it, drawing the parallels himself in his lyrics. (On the kinda-meh tape-closing track “Out Of This World,” he pushes this tendency unfortunately close to Game-style namedroppery.) Some of the guest rappers, like Main Attrakionz or Spaceghostpurrp, bring way more force and passion to their delivery than ASAP ever attempts. But even if ASAP never brings much in the way of personality or quotables, he’s got presence, and that makes a huge difference. He knows how to sit back in his tracks’ pocket, letting his voice float through like one more element of the track. He knows which syllables to emphasize, when to add a singsong lilt, when to snarl. And mostly by staying out of his own way, he’s given us an endlessly replayable mixtape. I don’t know if he’ll revolutionize the rap industry now that he’s a part of it, but for now, he’s justified his place at the center of the conversation.
Download LIVELOVEA$AP for free here.