A$AP Rocky is the ultimate internet rap success story. His career took off in 2010, when his business partner A$AP Yams started realniggatumblr. The blog built a brand by covering street rap from all regions from a distinctly New York perspective and by being basically the gulliest voice on the internet. Journalistic integrity wasn’t a strong suit; the business connection between Yams and Rocky wasn’t always apparent even as it began pushing Rocky as an artist. But the blog worked. Before he even released his first official mixtape, 2011’s Live.Love.A$AP, Rocky had a reported $3M record deal with Sony. The mixtape’s awesome pairing of booming, cavernous beats slowed to a Houston screwed-up crawl and Rocky’s New York swag helped him blow up. So that brings us to Long.Live.A$AP, the debut album, the first piece of A$AP Rocky’s music you can pay money for, the moment all of this hype has been building to.
The first thing you notice about Long.Live.A$AP is its glossiness. The album sounds great. It doesn’t really deviate from LiveLoveA$AP’s blunted booming sound, just cleans it up. Album opener ‘Long.Live.A$AP’ is a slightly haunting and off-kilter piece of cloud rap. Lead single ‘Goldie’ is an intoxicating mix of screwed choruses, strange ambient samples, skewed high-end melody and low-end thump. ‘LVL’ is awesomely stuttering, screwed and supremely stoned. There are a few moments on Long.Live.A$AP when Rocky deviates from his formula (the cloying Skrillex collaboration ‘Wild for the Night’ misses badly) but for the most part Rocky sticks to an HD version of the sound that he made his name on. Still, part of the appeal of Rocky’s early work was the feeling of menace and mystery that the slightly lo-fi production, in particular the beats from Clams Casino, lent it. In its absence, and even though the production is almost uniformly solid, the album feels a little less distinctive.
The less memorable production also puts more of a spotlight on A$AP Rocky, the rapper. He is competent and assured throughout. Rocky has moved from the willfully basic Three 6 Mafia style he used on much of Live.Love.A$AP to a more nimble, if still smoked out, flow that fits pretty much every beat here. He never strays from his bitches, blunts and Balenciaga subject matter. Plenty of rappers have been made a lot out of limited material but Rocky is more engaging here on a track like ‘Suddenly’ when he reminisces, “On the park bench playin’ checkers, sipping nectar/Girbaud jeans with hologram straps and reflectors/We had cookouts and dirt bikes and dice games and fist fights/And fish fries and shootouts like one SIG with two rounds/And click left two down, that’s four kids but one lived/That one miss, that one snitch”. It’s a great couple of lines: the specificity of the details make it all the more powerful when the summer afternoon in the park takes a violent turn. Moments like that make the rote brand name-dropping on a song like ‘Fashion Killa’ feel boring.
Now that A$AP Rocky is in the majors, he’s getting major features for his album. On ‘Fuckin’ Problems,’ the second single and a clear album highlight, Rocky rides an uncharacteristically uptempo beat as he delivers Kanye inspired punchlines and nasal “huhhhh”s. He sounds good. But the track also has verses from Drake and Kendrick Lamar and a chorus from 2 Chainz, and the personality gap between these stars and Rocky feels gigantic. Elsewhere, Rocky gets outshone on his own tracks pretty much every time there’s a guest, including ‘Ghetto Symphony’ (Gunplay) and the ne plus ultra of internet-rapper posse tracks ‘1 Train’ (verses from Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Action Bronson, Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick Lamar again, and a song-stealing Danny Brown).
Still, that’s not to sound too down on this album. The Skrillex moment aside, there are really no glaring missteps here. If you’re driving in your car, Love.Live.A$AP is going to sound great. It’s just that on closer listening, the album isn’t engaging enough. On his debut mixtape, Rocky and his partners pulled from the ’90s rap sounds they grew up with (Bone Thugs, Three 6 Mafia, DJ Screw) to create a world that had an all-of-one-piece insularity. That formula was perfect for the niche market of the internet. Now that Rocky is out in the wider world of major rap, the pressure is on to find something new to say or, more importantly, a more memorable way of saying it.