The Anniversary


ASAP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA
ASAP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA

What ever happened to the middlebrow rap blockbuster? When A$AP Rocky released his official debut album 10 years ago this Sunday, that pretty motherfucker was part of a constellation of crossover stars making grandly colorful statement LPs that churned out hits, tantalized critics, and suggested the “blog era” could be adapted to cinematic scale. Every album is a time capsule, but listening back to LONG.LIVE.A$AP, I’m especially struck by how rarely albums like this emerge in the present.

The early 2010s were a huge moment for self-consciously artful epics like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Take Care, and good kid, m.A.A.d. city. With rare exceptions like Tyler, The Creator, that lane is closed now, partially because the men at the center of those albums have moved on: Kanye West to oblivion, Drake to the assembly line, Kendrick Lamar somewhere farther from the zeitgeist than ever. Back then, they were all present in Rocky’s music — Club Paradise tourmates Drake and Kendrick literally as guest MCs, Kanye spiritually through the influence of his omnivorous genre-melding taste and his fascinations with art, fashion, and the attendant halls of power. There were also traces of Three 6 Mafia’s Southern horrorcore and DJ Screw’s molasses-paced rider music and Bone Thugs’ elastic sing-song — everything but the New York hip-hop you’d expect from a guy from Dipset’s neighborhood whose parents named him after Rakim.

In 2013, it all came together on a record that affirmed Rocky as both a rapper and a potential pop star. He looked the part: extraordinary swag and a mouth full of gold, flanked by his entourage amidst a cloud of purple smoke. He sounded it, too, with slippery, nimble delivery, evocative descriptions of his own splendor, and an unmistakable presence adaptable enough to thrive in any environment. Rocky had a reputation for style over substance, for neatly assembling his influences into a mood board and calling it art. But if it lacked a certain depth, LONG.LIVE.A$AP fit pretty well into that continuum of big-swing brand-name hip-hop records and was gobbled up by the same people (e.g. me) who were going nuts for Kanye, Drake, and Kendrick. The record still stands as a vast and ambitious collection of sounds, one that massaged major-label rap’s time-tested something-for-everyone approach enough to make it feel less like pandering than savvy curation.

Nowadays, LONG.LIVE.A$AP feels like a classic but not a masterpiece — less a timeless work of art than a document of a brilliant shit-talker and stylist at the peak of his powers. Maybe you prefer LIVELOVEA$AP, the 2011 mixtape on which the Harlem MC and his associates blended sounds from across the map into a compelling aesthetic statement, or At.Long.Last.A$AP, the acid-drenched 2015 opus on which Rocky ventured further out into the experimental wilderness. (No one prefers Testing.) But for me, this is the best Rocky full-length, the one that hits like popcorn entertainment without compromising A$AP Mob’s high-fashion-meets-street-life posture.

Never does it entertain more than on a three-song stretch at its core that includes some of the album’s most memorable guest spots. If there’s one track that makes LONG.LIVE.A$AP feel a million years old, it’s “Fuckin’ Problems,” Rocky’s only top-10 hit as a lead artist and a relic of a time when Drake and Kendrick Lamar could still appear on the same song — in the same music video, even! The track is sleek, streamlined fun: a ridiculous 2 Chainz hook about sex addiction plus Rocky, Drake, and Kendrick having a blast one-upping each other over 40’s four-chord vamp. (“Just drop down and get your eagle on/ Or we can stare up at the stars and put the Beatles on” wins the game for me.) On the subsequent “Wild For The Night,” Rocky rides Skrillex’s Caribbean brostep bounce so skillfully that what could have been an awkward pairing feels inspired; it might be the best ignorant party music either guy ever made. Then there’s “1 Train,” a fleeting glimpse of NYC rap classicism, on which a procession of blog-rap royals assembles over Hit-Boy’s best string-laden boom-bap. On second thought, nothing dates this album quite like a posse cut involving Rocky, Kendrick, Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson, Danny Brown, Big K.R.I.T., and Yelawolf.

That middle stretch is an incomparable peak for LONG.LIVE.A$AP, rivaled only by its opening triad. Within the title track’s booming bass dungeon, Rocky busts out what seems like a Radiohead impression, shifting into a fluttering falsetto over spindly “Scatterbrain” guitar arpeggios on the chorus. Lead single “Goldie” is impossibly smooth and magnificently hard, Rocky gliding over Hit-Boy’s thundering 808 burbles and whistling hook. (Have we considered the possibility that this album was Hit-Boy’s finest hour?) On the refrain, Rocky toggled over to the screwed vocals that he’d helped to turn from a regional specialty into an omnipresent trend, reaching all the way to Miley Cyrus and Vampire Weekend. Whether in his standard timbre or pitched down, it’s some of the most agile rapping of his career. He immediately returns to the purple murk on “PMW,” on which he and ScHoolboy Q identify pussy, money, and weed as life’s essentials.

Sequences like these played like genius extensions of the vibe Rocky conjured on his breakthrough tape, as if he was expanding his native environment, not replacing it. Even radio bait like the icy, synthetic, kinda goofy “Fashion Killa” was seamlessly incorporated into the whole. And when he returned to his bleary comfort zone on tracks like “LVL” and “Hell” — both produced by cloud-rap auteur Clams Casino, who’d helped to shape Rocky’s sound back when the late A$AP Yams was still gassing him up on Tumblr — he continued to sound entirely at home. Sure, the album trailed off a bit at the end, but by that point Rocky had already more than proven himself as a star.

On his next couple albums, Rocky admirably tried to keep pushing his sound to new places, but sometime after informing us that Trap Lord is in stores now, he lost the plot. It’s possible that the late promotional genius A$AP Yams had been more of a rudder than anyone had realized. By 2019, when Rocky was detained in Sweden in what became a geopolitical standoff, he seemed past his creative prime. Still, you can clearly see his influence in artists like Playboi Carti and Westside Gunn, who’ve taken his blend of fashion, art, and grimy street rap to fascinating new places. As for Rocky, he remains a festival headliner even though for years his music has been overshadowed by his personal life, for better and worse. Last year he and Rihanna welcomed a baby boy; recently he was scheduled to be in a Los Angeles courtroom on charges of shooting his former associate A$AP Relli in November 2021.

As for the fate of albums like LONG.LIVE.A$AP, which of rap’s crossover stars was going to make them? Future, who kept one foot in the street-rap ecosystem even when dabbling with pop, opted for villainous consistency over manufactured prestige. Migos and Rae Sremmurd were singles acts, no matter how many tracks they crammed on a record. J. Cole kept trying too hard. Chance The Rapper dropped the baton. Cardi B hasn’t even bothered to release another LP, and Megan Thee Stallion arguably doesn’t need to. Travis Scott, whose Astroworld was one of the last smash-hit epics of this ilk, saw his career severely damaged by presiding over one of the most tragically deadly music festival accidents in recent memory, while Young Thug was sidelined by racketeering charges at the peak of his influence. A whole generation of game-changing talents died young, and most of them were operating on an entirely different wavelength before they passed.

Once Juice WRLD and Lil Peep and XXXTentacion were gone, a page had already turned. Streaming services destroyed the blogs that fomented Rocky’s wave of peers, and even the most successful among them never ascended beyond afternoon festival sets and a dedicated core of listeners. Rap splintered into regional scenes and underground cults of personality, scattered across countless SoundCloud and YouTube accounts. Reflecting a TikTok reality, bits, bites, and leaks became the prevailing currency. There seems to be less middle ground and more subsets: Lyrical Lemonade pop tarts like the Kid Laroi, volume-based grinders like YoungBoy Never Broke Again, indie iconoclasts like Armand Hammer, and classicist veterans like Black Thought. The artists who do exist in something like a marketable center — figures like 21 Savage, Lil Uzi Vert, Post Malone, Lil Baby, and Polo G — are still releasing statement albums, but whatever glimmers remain from that early 2010s prestige sprawl feel like the afterglow of a bygone epoch.

That might be for the best. Maybe rap is better off not catering to listeners like me, dilettante critics who crave a certain kind of widescreen accessibility and bombast, who love it when rap speaks in the language of rock and pop. There’s no doubt all these vibrant pockets of creativity that are currently percolating around the world add up to a healthy ecosystem, so don’t take this screed as a lament about the state of hip-hop. But if you feel like revisiting LONG.LIVE.A$AP this weekend, do pour one out for one of my favorite eras in rap history.

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