The recirculated air of the Riverside Church’s main chapel seems to grow more stale by the minute. Sunlight shines polychrome through stained glass windows. The pews that seat 2100 people, sky-high columns and arches, and gold-embellished pulpit and stage are magnificent — but void of the energy normally emitted by the worship and song of a couple thousand people, the room is lifeless and eminently vast. That is, until Ferg arrives.
Ferg’s threads aren’t particularly special, but they ooze Harlem swag: Stan Smith Adidas with green detailing on the heel, Adidas skinny-fit track pants, and a vintage Seal and Des’ree T-shirt from the British singers’ 1995 tour peek out from a leather bomber jacket. The only flash are his multiple rings — including a fly nameplate ring encrusted with diamonds — and grills that show often due to an infectious smile and laugh. His outfit is tailored for an understated magnetism that instantly shrinks the room to his size.
Ferg has more than enough charisma and a complementary fit for the photo shoot to begin, but he feels he needs something to take it to the next level. So we’re waiting patiently for a black mink coat to arrive. Eventually, a man arrives with the coat, and Ferg slips into character. Which of his characters exactly is hard to discern — there’s a fluidity among them that becomes more easily discernible through his music — but in the flesh, it amounts to a magnified presence that amplifies the already existing qualities Ferg possesses. His charm and allure seem to increase exponentially. The transformation occurs instantly, and the stark contrast is an intriguing sight to behold. In this moment, Ferg knows exactly what he needs to elevate things.
“I can’t just come in here looking raggedy,” Ferg jokes with his label rep. “I have to look like an artist.” That’s a skill he’ll need in order to execute the leap he’s poised to make.
Darold Brown (born Darold Ferguson Jr.), better known as A$AP Ferg, is a man of a few personas. There’s the Trap Lord: the resourceful man who’s about his money and multiple means of making it; if it doesn’t make money then it doesn’t make sense to the Trap Lord. There’s the Hood Pope: the man who blew up and pushes even further, who had his eyes, ears, and mind opened by experiences all over the world and came back to share them with his followers. And there’s plain old A$AP Ferg (who isn’t very plain at all): a man loyal to his crew and family, proud of his firmly planted Harlem roots, with the ambition to uproot them along with as many of his people as he can possibly take with him on his ascension.
Ferg’s personality and personas were initially muffled among the many in the A$AP Mob. The Mob was formed about a decade ago by A$AP Yams, A$AP Bari, and A$AP Illz, and gained acclaim in 2011 from A$AP Rocky’s excellent Live. Love. A$AP mixtape. In 2012, the crew dropped a project featuring all its members, Lords Never Worry. Ferg had a noticeable presence on the group’s mixtape, and many scene-stealing moments. One of Ferg’s singles on the group’s project, “Work,” took on a life of its own, signaling a potential that was dormant in the rapper, but he didn’t quite have the room to stretch out, because Rocky’s breakout success, not to mention the aesthetic and power of numbers, overshadowed Ferg’s individuality.
The first real glimpse we saw of Ferg, and Ferg alone, was his solid debut album, 2013’s Trap Lord. There, he stepped out of the shadows in a major way, proving he has lyrical dexterity, versatile flows, and the ability to deftly craft hits among a cohesive body of work. Bangers “Shabba” and “Hood Pope” took off, gaining nearly 50 million YouTube views between them to date. 2014’s Ferg Forever mixtape further proved he was capable of standing on his own two.
Ferg’s new album, Always Strive And Prosper, initially set to drop last month, will most likely come this month, but it does not have a firm release date. It may just launch him into the next echelon of major label rap success. But unlike many artists who have diluted themselves to transcend personhood and become a figure, Ferg has gone inward, deeper into self to project it outward.
“We saw Biggie Smalls in the lumberjack [flannel] before we saw him in Versace,” says Ferg, stretched out on a chapel pew. “He made us understand his plight and his struggle before success. But it’s kind of like I’m working backwards a little bit because A$AP blew up so fast, and ‘Work’ came, ‘Shabba’ came, and blew up so fast that [fans] didn’t really get a chance to get an inside look into my life. So now it’s like I’m schooling all my fans and letting them know who I am. I’m giving them the lineage.” The album is cleverly constructed for a leap. It’s a versatile body of work that has the deliberateness of an artist who knows his rise is imminent, but slyly communicates that purpose without relinquishing artistic integrity. Most of all, it is thoroughly Ferg in every aspect.
Each track on the album has its own hermetic seal, sonically speaking, due to the array of contributing producers with distinctive aesthetics like Clams Casino, Lex Luger, Skrillex, Stargate, and DJ Khalil. But what makes the album a cohesive body of work is Ferg’s revelatory introspection and deeply personal lyrics. Almost any given song on Always Strive And Prosper discloses more than all of Trap Lord or Ferg Forever in their entirety. Even on radio-ready songs like “Strive,” featuring Missy Elliott, he unveils pieces of himself, his family, and his upbringing through lines like “Working in Ben & Jerry’s it was scary/ My life vision was blurry/ You got talent, why is you here?/ I’m thinking yeah, plus I am getting a belly.” “Hungry Ham” — though electro-leaning, club-friendly, and easily able to traverse a broad range of fans — is all about the block Ferg grew up on. Ferg kicks off his first verse with, “Grandma used to call me Mickey Mouse/ But I’m no rat… Seen my niggas’ family members bugging off of the crack/ Your uncle smell like shit like he got garbage in his ass.”
Ferg even arranged the album’s guest features, relying solely on his own clout and networking hustle, without influence from any label obligations or industry middlemen. “All my features just happened,” says Ferg nonchalantly. “[At first] I didn’t have any features on it. Just to get a well-rounded album, I wanted to get guests and friends.” The Missy collab resulted from a phone call to Ferg from Missy’s cousin extending an invitation from Timbaland to come to his studio and meet Missy. “Hungry Ham,” a collab with Grimes and Skrillex, exists because Ferg and Grimes met on the set of HAIM’s “My Song 5″ video. The Chris Brown-assisted “I Love You,” came to fruition because of a photograph. Ferg designed belts as a teenager, and had a picture of the time he sold one to Brown. Ferg ran into one of Brown’s friends and asked him to show Brown the picture. Brown made the connection between who Ferg was then and who Ferg is now, and invited him to the studio in LA.
(UPDATE: According to a 4AD representative, Grimes will not appear on the final version of the album.)
Even when allocating space for other artists to do their thing, Ferg has a way of pulling the attention back to him, mainly by keeping his lyrics and even song titles intensely personal. “Hungry Ham” is named after the strip of Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem between 140th and 145th streets where he grew up. He devotes two songs to his Uncle Psycho: the namesake “Psycho” and the ScHoolboy Q-assisted “Let It Bang.” Then there’s the self-explanatory “Grandma.” Ferg shows his more romantic side on “I Love You.” He throws his contribution into the Black Lives Matter conversation on “Beautiful People.” Seemingly every song divulges something intimate, vulnerable, or contemplative, to varying degrees.
Ferg has an explanation for all the inwardness. “I just feel like I wanted to connect with my fan base on a personal level, because I’ve gotten noticed for the bigger singles and it’s kind of like, I just blew up off of the songs that were … I wouldn’t say less introspective, but it wasn’t nothing that was going to tell you where I was from really or let you know who I was as a person. So I feel like there’s more longevity in me connecting with my fans on a deeper level versus just being on the surface and giving them hit records or just turnt-up stuff.” That is certainly true, given the rise of Rocky and his crew, but there are underlying motivations spawned from those very same sources.
Part of what invigorates Ferg is his healthy unease about being the second to come out of a crew. A$AP Mob blew up quickly, with A$AP Rocky kicking down doors for everyone else. Ferg is well aware of his need to separate himself from the group to a certain extent, and step out of Rocky’s shadow to find success on his own terms. “To have another person out of the crew be successful, that is a success, because not a lot of people have solo success coming out of a group,” says Ferg. “You’ve seen it for years. The first person comes out, and who’s the next person to blow up? You really hardly see the next person blow up and stand on they own two, and really innovate things and take his own path.”
That concern is legitimate. You need only look in Ferg’s hometown of Harlem for historical reference in a clique with similar dynamics — the clique A$AP Yams modeled the Mob after — The Diplomats. None of Cam’ron’s successors from the Diplomats ever quite reached his level of success — Jim Jones and Juelz Santana had a healthy buzz respectively, but neither sold as well or held the same critical acclaim: Cam had one platinum and two gold efforts; Juelz had one gold album; and Jim Jones doesn’t have any plaques to his name. It isn’t a coincidence that Jones’ last album, 2011’s Capo, had the lowest debut on the charts of any of his albums at the same time he tried to claim the leadership role with the album’s title in the wake of Cam’ron’s hiatus. Cam got the movie deal with Paid In Full. Cam got the infamous anti-snitching interview on 60 Minutes. Cam is still the most active of Dipset’s top three to this day with some recent features, game-show antics, and an appearance on The Nightly Show.
The group dynamic and low-key sibling rivalry with Rocky simultaneously furthers and impedes Ferg’s progression as a solo artist. Ferg has the charisma, lyrical dexterity, beat selection, and visual taste to become much more than “that dude in A$AP Rocky’s crew,” but there’s no guarantee that he will escape that label. Ferg denies it’s a rivalry, and he and Rocky have expertly left each other’s toes unharmed when stepping to the forefront, but their relationship is complicated to say the least. Ferg’s ambivalence is equal parts love and affection for his brother and family as a whole, and the pride of not wanting to be just his best or his crew’s best, but the best.
“I did a lot of things Rocky didn’t do, and Rocky did a lot of things I didn’t do, but it all looks good for the crew,” says Ferg. “I did the Garden. Rocky ain’t do the Garden yet. I worked with Madonna. I worked with Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony on my first album. And Rocky is always telling me, ‘I’m proud of you because you’re doing your thing.’ You don’t see that shit … the second person doesn’t really gain the respect because everybody’s always stuck on the first event. But we put Rocky on a pedestal. He brought the idea of even becoming a rapper and taking it serious. Before, I was just doing it for fun, and battling, and doing it for the sport. And he was like, ‘Nah, we can make money off of this.’ He brought that aspect, him and Yams.”
Rocky aside, Ferg still also has obligations to his crew and he feels them poignantly as well. Yams — the man who bestowed Ferg the Trap Lord moniker and came up with the crew’s motto/Ferg’s album title — brought the crew closer together with his untimely death, but Ferg is looking to separate himself to a degree, and that tension is present in him as well.
Once the photo shoot is finished, the magnifying mink is off and Ferg’s leather bomber returns to its place over Ferg’s hoodie. Now he’s just Ferg, a son planning a trip to see his mother who still resides in Hungry Ham. So we leave the cathedral together, and hop in a large black SUV, sharing a ride back to the place where it all began.
It’s Ferg’s first time back on his block in months. He no longer lives there; he’s been zooming all over the country to finish recording the new album. But he knows this neighborhood well, only slightly glancing up from his phone to give the driver precise directions that will position us just a few curbside steps away from the front door of his mother’s building.
As we ride through Harlem, I notice that Ferg could easily blend right in with his former neighbors: the Adidas track pants, a graphic T-shirt, some classic kicks, a hoodie, and a coat (although no one else is sporting the grills and diamond-encrusted ring). The big difference is that many of them have either rarely or never left that block, just like some of A$AP Mob. But Ferg was also once the Fresh Air Fund kid who got to escape the drugs, crime, and poverty of his surroundings for a bit and spark his curiosity.
“As far as the homies that are stuck on the block, I always try to get them to go downtown with me to clubs and these underground fashion parties and fashion shows and things like that because that’s what I was into,” says Ferg. “Some people, they just love the block so much because that’s all they know. I always try to open up the homies’ minds.”
There is clearly love and goodwill in the crew, but the age-old question of social mobility still applies: How guilty should I feel for leaving my friends behind? Anyone in an impoverished neighborhood who made it out, people who were in a middle-class situation that ended up rich, or anyone that’s progressed and had to leave people they care about to do so can relate. Many rappers face this problem as well, but there are few that let it manifest in their music so strongly.
It’s still difficult for Ferg to appreciate the newfound fame and attention he’s received. He wrestles with all of that inner dissonance and never quite shows any of it until it’s time to record. He had to do jury duty the other day and was reminded that he hasn’t taken the train in four years when a fan asked, “How you getting home? You taking the train?” But he doesn’t brag about it as some sort of cherished status symbol. He tells the story of when he first realized he couldn’t take the train with a mix of nostalgia and pride.
“It was hard for me to open up and release information about myself because I’m not the person to talk about myself,” says Ferg. “I’ll play the background in a hot second. I didn’t choose to be here. I took the opportunity, but when I first started rapping, I would rather have written for people, and not deal with fame. So that’s just my mentality, but I grew into the person I am.”
The personas make more sense now. They may help him transform into what he needs to be aesthetically, while being flexible enough to snap back in place when the conflicting forces within him pull in opposite directions. They’re not quite a coping mechanism, but there is more necessity to them than may meet the eye. To know all of these things are going through his head at any given moment, and to see and hear the quality of the music and visuals he releases, engenders a new respect.
“Trap Lord is like the aggressive lost child that’s from out the hood,” says Ferg. “You know, you ain’t really experience life. It’s kind of like dormant in this box, and that was me before I started to travel the world and see different things. Hood Pope is the guy, same person who is dormant and all of the that, but traveled the world and came back to preach to his people. So Trap Lord and Hood Pope is the same person. It’s all Ferg.”
But seeing him hurriedly disappear into his mother’s building on his old block, I can’t help but wonder if I just saw a rare glimpse of Darold.