While the A$AP Mob has always attracted attention for their Tumblr-cultivated iconography (and iconoclasm), they’ve typically been less about chasing or even starting trends than they are about reinventing them. A$AP Rocky’s shown skill and savvy in building on his lifelong hip-hop influences — he was named after Rakim and raised on Dipset — while completely transcending them; his debut mixtape, Live.Love.A$AP, was a New York creation that was less about bringing New York back than bringing the rest of hip-hop’s world back to New York.
With a few years of region-hybridizing and style-encompassing music cementing an early rep, Rocky seems more intent now on shifting from shaking up the New York rap identity to reshaping his own. Like on previous records, Rocky’s just-released At.Long.Last.A$AP offers surprises in the samples and left turns in the namedrops; remember, this is a dude that can and will spit lyrics over — and informed by — esoteric early ’80s UK art-pop. But with Rocky’s stated recent interest in psychedelia, and Juicy J and Danger Mouse joining in as co-executive producers, A.L.L.A. creates a noticeable evolutionary transition between his Harlem-to-Memphis-to-Houston stylistic roots and his more unconventional, idiosyncratic interests. Both are well-represented on the album’s guest list, but there are some particularly noteworthy presences lurking beneath marquee names like Kanye West and Lil Wayne. Here are 11 of the more surprising ones.
There’s “plucked from obscurity,” and then there’s what happened to Joe Fox. As the story goes, Fox was a London busker with no fixed address who made his way selling CDs to people on the street when he ran into Rocky and producer/mixer Hector Delgado at 4 AM in the middle of Soho. (He claims he didn’t recognize them because “I don’t listen to new music.”) After an impromptu solo acoustic guitar performance and subsequent CD sales pitch, Rocky wound up supporting Fox’s endeavors in a much more generous way — by inviting him into Red Bull Studios that same morning to record some of the tracks that would eventually appear on A.L.L.A. Maybe the most revelatory one is “Max B,” where Rocky inspired Fox to write a chorus based around the incarcerated Dipset member. Fox’s pained borderline-falsetto feels like it’s crackling off the surface of an old 78 RPM record, as old-soul world-weary as one can sound while still convincingly pulling off a lament about being “still too young” for his situation. He also appears in the same featured-artist parenthetical as Kanye West on “Jukebox Joints,” a ghostly vocal foil to both MCs.
One of several unconventional yet effective samples on A.L.L.A. comes from Danger Mouse’s toolkit, as the always alt-rock-savvy producer incorporates some alt-country into “Holy Ghost”. Memphis’s own Lucero provides the twangy soul that underscores Rocky’s embattled-fame hymnal, the rhythm section and Ben Nichols’ guitar from “Noon As Dark As Midnight” pitched down to the point where its peak-hour heat fades to a low-lit simmer. It’s a stirring effect, but juxtaposing the lyrics brings out some subliminal parallels: Nichols’ epiphany to face the difficult truth with a loved one (“Runnin’ from the truth for all my life/ Wake up darlin’, wake up darlin’/ No I’m too tired to tell more lies”) is funhouse-mirrored in Rocky lines that damn the false hopes of prosperity gospel even as he’s found success in his own sermons.
Good luck to anybody who discovers Bones through his interpolation on “Canal St.” — if that’s how you wind up catching onto and enjoying the L.A.-based rapper’s copious mixtapes (including titles like Skinny, Rotten, Garbage, Creep, and Cracker), you’ll probably wind up facing an army of devotees gunning for hypebeasts and checking your cred card. That’s not too weird on a fundamental fan-cult level, though — part of Bones’ appeal ties into just how far his recorded output and geographical reach outpaced his press visibility and tastemaker hype, at least until relatively recently. Couple that with his sleepless work ethic and his conscious decision to give away his music for free, and the devotion makes a lot more sense. And even with the peak-buzz haze of cloud rap dissipating in the wake of whatever next newness bloggers are chasing, Bones’ style — found-footage VHS queasiness and ’90s-damaged No Limit coping mechanisms filtered through an alienated rural-Michigan upbringing — are too evocative for the fading-trend slushpile. His track “Dirt” is lifted for “Canal St.,” with its anti-counterfeit hook (“You say you got ‘em guns, but I’ve never seen you bang/ You say you get ‘em drugs, but I’ve never seen you slang”) given new light in the context of Rocky’s introspection at being someone who’s never had that concern.
Kanye and Che Pope went deep for this one: Their beat for “Jukebox Joints” includes an eerie, bloodshot-eyed choral dirge loop that sounds like some lost soul gem from a Numero Group-unearthed Ohio record label that put out half a dozen 45s in 1973. Except it’s not: That sample comes from Rasela, a Jakarta prog-psych band that was scarcely known outside Indonesia until a 2011 Now-Again compilation brought one of their songs to the rest of the world. “Doa Tuk Kekasih,” from their early 1970s LP Rasela V.G., is a case where seeming obscurity takes less precedence than a specific, ineffable feeling that could come from just about any place in the world that’s had a pop-music presence, however localized. That this loop transitions into a sample from a 1968 Smokey Robinson & The Miracles cut with the most natural feeling in the world only reinforces that.
Rocky and Delgado co-produced “Max B” as part of that initial first rush of inspiration after meeting Joe Fox, and it says something that its two acknowledged building block samples are deathless canon break “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” by Bob James and … “Who By Fire” by Leonard Cohen, as performed in one of the concerts that appeared on 1994’s Cohen Live. The original version from New Skin For The Old Ceremony was a short, sparse, but harrowingly moving song that built from a single isolated acoustic guitar to a full, nerve-sawing string section, but the live rendition was sourced for the Eastern-influenced strings that both introduce the song and underscore its melodic origins in a Yom Kippur prayer. Whether or not Rocky chose that beat to line up with this song’s own meditations on atoning for one’s sins, it’s another level of depth in a song that goes miles down.
It’s been seven and a half years since Pimp C passed and six years since UGK 4 Life was released, which makes an actual UGK credit rarer than rare. (The only one of any real note was a spot on Big Boi’s “Gossip,” a deluxe-edition bonus track on Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors.) So getting Bun B to bring out the legendary name and a Pimp C verse from the vault on “Wavybone” is some kind of coup, likely masterminded or at least facilitated by longtime champion and collaborator Juicy J — who, don’t forget, laced them with a spot on “Sippin’ On Some Syrup” and co-produced “International Players Anthem (I Choose You).” In an A$AP context, think of their appearance here as a spiritual sequel to “Houston Old Head,” maybe, or a deep-cut acknowledgement of an early-buzz tribute where the Underground Kingz were simply aspirational subjects instead of recognized collaborators. Either way, it feels like a torch-passing.
A.L.L.A. gets so bleary and head-spinning in its production that even bouncy, lighthearted indie pop gets pulled into the vortex and churned into something nigh on unrecognizable. The codeine float of “Better Things” is said to incorporate some piece or another of Cayucas’ rubber-bass ode to ambivalent romance “High School Lover,” but wherever it might be is buried under a couple other layers of unlikely murk — Twin Sister’s downtempo alt-disco swoon “All Around and Away We Go” and, most prominently, Bobby Caldwell’s blue-eyed quiet storm cut “Carry On.” How heretofore obscure producer Frans Mernick managed that kind of alchemy is beyond me — there’s screw, and then there’s whatever on Earth this is.
OK, maybe this requires an asterisk (and a follow-up). Rod Stewart is credited as a feature spot on “Everyday,” even if only in spirit: He’s sampled so prominently and thoroughly that he joins Otis Redding’s Watch The Throne credit as singers who, in the process of being sampled, wound up getting their own billing. The familiar rasp of a still-young Rod has him in blue-eyed soul mode, an ideal hook man for a record with aims to get kind of heavy-rock weird, and having him echoed by 4G-age R&B vanguard Miguel is a remarkable touch when it comes to grounding old sounds in new territory. But there’s more to that song than the voice…
Python Lee Jackson
…like the band behind it. Python Lee Jackson were an Australian/British band that ricocheted their way through several lineups, a couple continents, and a few singles, one of which became a belated UK hit years after they went on hiatus. During a 1969 recording session with legendary DJ John Peel, the band brought in Rod Stewart — at the time, the singer in a rapidly fracturing Jeff Beck Group — at the behest of PLJ keyboardist/singer Dave Bentley, who figured he didn’t have the voice to pull off a song he’d written. Rod clearly did, and “In A Broken Dream” was issued as a 7″ on the oddity-riddled Young Blood label. The initial 1970 release was a non-starter, but once “Maggie May” solidified the rise to stardom that the Faces’ A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … To A Blind Horse anticipated, Young Blood capitalized on the demand for Stewart’s music by reissuing “In A Broken Dream” in ’72 and saw it turn into a #3 smash. It’d be unfair to credit Stewart alone for that, though, since Bentley’s foggy, mournful organ is just as powerful a mood-setter. (Incidentally, Mark Ronson isn’t the first producer to take advantage of it; 14 years ago Dan The Automator incorporated that sample to chillingly lascivious effect on Lovage’s “Lifeboat,” featuring guest singer Mike Patton.)
There’s a lot of star power featured on “Everyday,” including a credit for Black Keys (and Blakroc) guitarist Dan Auerbach on a track where I’ll be damned if I can hear a guitar at all. (This wouldn’t even be the first time Auerbach’s shown up as a feature on a hardcore hip-hop record, either, as any Freddie Gibbs fan can tell you). There’s a secret weapon, though: keyboardist and Mark Ronson go-to guy Victor Axelrod, whose resume includes albums by funk-revival greats like Antibalas, Menahan Street Band, and the Dap-Kings — as well as a record you might’ve heard at some point called Back To Black. His role recreating (and cranking up) the “In A Broken Dream” organ is only the latest in a number of notable brushes with hip-hop in a career that’s also seen him play keys on Nas’ Untitled (“Fried Chicken”), Wale’s Attention: Deficit (“Mama Told Me”; “Mirrors”; “90210”), and Ghostface Killah’s More Fish (at least by “You Know I’m No Good” proxy).
Yasiin Bey/Mos Def
Sorry for the muddled attribution — in any case, why Dante Smith is billed as Mos instead of Yasiin in official credits but called Yasiin Bey on record is probably the least interesting thing about his appearance here. That honor could go to a lot of things, from the fact that he has the album’s last verse before the late A$AP Yams’ triumphant closing tirade to the fact that he’s on the record in the first place — your typical rap marketer’s Venn diagram of Black Star and A$AP Mob fanbases would probably wind up looking like a figure eight. But Rocky dubs Yasiin “Pretty Flacko Senior,” so consider that clarified. He shines in a short verse, knotty and intricate and allusive and upfront as he’s been at his best (“Magnum spectacular, black man magnanimous/ Shine amethyst, fly champion, it’s like that again”), less a transmission from another plane than another piece in a wildly sprawling whole.