Some rappers only barely rap when they get onstage. Instead, they rip through the crowd, stagedive, bark along with hits that aren’t even theirs. They do everything they can to get crowds amped up — everything, that is, short of rapping consistently well. This isn’t a new thing. Insane Clown Posse have famously treated their live shows as Faygo-squirting parties for decades. But in the new festival economy, this whole breed of rapping is flourishing. Travis Scott doesn’t need to rap when he’s onstage, not when he can crowdsurf in an inflated raft or whatever the hell. Waka Flocka Flame’s live shows involve the man moshing to EDM hits with fratboys; he’s less a rap star and more of a lively, garrulous party host. And then there’s A$AP Ferg.
I don’t think anyone saw Ferg fitting the party-starter archetype, at least not early on. When he first emerged from the anonymous A$AP Mob morass, he played the hardened tough guy to crew leader A$AP Rocky’s cosmopolitan dandy. He made dark, grimy anthems, and he came off like the muscle of a very fashionable crew. Eventually, once he got around to releasing his debut, Trap Lord, it emerged that Ferg was probably weirder, in his own way, than Rocky was. Rocky, after all, arrived as a silky, charismatic, fully formed rap star. Ferg is at once goofier and more unpredictable. His flow is an erratic electric-shock rasp, and his taste in beats tends toward tracks that sound like Bernard Herrman’s Psycho score except with trap drums. But Ferg could make bangers, and once everyone saw what songs like “Shabba” and the “Work” remix could do to festival crowds, Ferg had a clear path forward. When I saw him at last year’s Pitchfork Festival, bros in the audience crowd-surfed a gigantic trash barrel. It was that sort of show.
Now, Ferg was rapping in that set. But he didn’t have to rap like that. Somehow, one album and one solo mixtape in, he had enough material for a full set of firestarters. And so he didn’t bother getting weird. On today’s touring circuit, Ferg can be the art-kid equivalent of Flocka, and he can do it without manifesting any outward art-kid tendencies. But Ferg is still a rapper, and, to his credit, he still has ideas and ambitions. So Always Strive And Prosper, his new sophomore album, walks a curious line. Ferg wants to evolve as a rapper. He wants to be able to get personal, to speak his own truths. But he also has to feed the turnt-up monster. Somehow, Always Strive And Prosper mostly succeeds on both grounds. It’s a messy and unfocused album, and at times, it’s a pandering one. But it’s also got some moments of furious energy, and those moments don’t take away from the heartfelt talk about Ferg’s family, Ferg’s friends, and Ferg’s rise from nothing.
Musically, Always Strive And Prosper often sounds less like a major-label rap album and more like a late-’90s/early-’00s rave-music compilation — like the sort of thing MTV would put out as a tie-in with Amp — except with rapping on it. The Skrillex-produced “Hungry Ham” is a monstrous day-glo big-beat jam. “Strive” could be French Touch house. “Psycho” and “New Level” and “Yammy Gang” and a few others could be sinister late-night techno — the sort of stuff that always seemed to be playing, back in the day, when you’ve been up for too long and things start to feel weird. Even “Beautiful People,” which on paper is the album’s token conscious-rap song, has traces of sunny, jazzy drum-and-bass; when it kicks in, it could be slowed-down LTJ Bukem. A straight-up radio-bait song like the Chris Brown-assisted “I Love You” sticks out like a sore thumb because it’s the only thing that’s not specifically made to drive white kids nuts at corporate-sponsored three-day drug-and-band marathons.
Your mileage may vary, but as someone who went to a couple of raves in college, I think this whole crowd-pleasing dance-music direction is weirdly awesome, and I’m surprised more rappers don’t try it. There’s a whole market out there that’s begging to hear drug-dealing raps over Fatboy Slim beats. And with this album, Ferg has proven that this formula can work artistically. Because with Always Strive And Prosper, Ferg has also given us what’s by far his most personal album (something Stereogum’s own Collin Robinson discussed with the man himself in our March cover story). It takes a few listens for the lyrics to even begin to sink in, but once you start to pay attention, it’s amazing how unguarded and openhearted they are. Ferg remembers his days scooping ice cream at a Ben & Jerry’s store. He fixates on the time he spent looking up to his knucklehead uncle. He misses his grandmother. He talks about feeling guilty for rapping about fucking random women, and he considers how that makes his girlfriend feel. Drum-and-bass sonics or no, “Beautiful People” should feel like homework, with its spoken-word bits from both Chuck D and Ferg’s actual mom. But even that song has an earnest energy to it.
You can probably imagine that this combination of planet-smashing beats and naked sentimentality can be a bit awkward. Always Strive And Prosper is an experiment, and it’s not all the way there yet. But it shows Ferg to be a restless artist, one who’s pushing himself in a ton of directions at once. And when everything comes together, as on the Future-featuring strivers’ anthem “New Level,” Ferg shows just how exciting he can be. With the sudden deluge of music from titans like Beyoncé and Drake, Ferg’s album is destined to be a bit overshadowed. But if you happen to see Ferg on a festival stage at some point this summer, you will probably see that work paying off.
1. DJ Quik & Problem – “A New Nite / Rosecrans Grove” (Feat. Shy Carter)
A note to the rap producers of the world: Please don’t listen to this track and start thinking it’s OK to make 10-minute songs that end in six-minute instrumental session-player funk jams. Only DJ Quik is allowed to do that. He’s the only one who can even conceivably get away with it.
2. Fetty Wap – “Wake Up”
Rap’s most likable hit-howler gives us the catchiest, friendliest, gentlest song about not wanting to go to school since, at the very least, Kriss Kross dropped “I Missed The Bus.”
3. Migos – “Say Sum”
These guys have been making the same song over and over for too long, as if their best song (“Fight Night”) wasn’t also one of their few left turns. So let’s all enjoy them stop-start singing over a beat that sounds like corroded neo-soul. It probably won’t last.
4. Cousin Fik – “Get High” (Feat. Clyde Carson & Kool John)
God bless the Bay Area, a place where even released-on-4/20 weed anthems slap hard in that distinctively sleek and spacey way.
5. Riz Ahmed – “Enuff”
Odds are good that, two years from now, this guy will be a full-on movie star. And even if that doesn’t happen, you have to love an era when prospective movie stars are out here making introspective, commentary-rich grime tracks and putting them on Bandcamp.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Everybody ready? Michelle, make sure the Queen is buckled up.
-NDA PANDA PANDA I GOT BR
whoops sorry pic.twitter.com/R8nggFB4NK
— ?netw3rk (@netw3rk) April 22, 2016