If you know anything about A$AP Rocky, it’s probably that he loves fashion. The Harlem rapper’s interest in style is focused on designer clothes, but extends to hip-hop culture, music, and beyond. He has very good taste, and a fashion maven’s instinct of finding the right aesthetic for the moment while also being slightly ahead of the curve.
His major label debut, LongLiveA$AP, sounds like the result of an extravagant musical shopping spree, with A$AP taking advantage of his budget to work with the most stylish producers – Clams Casino, Hit-Boy, Danger Mouse, Skrillex – and the most talented rappers in his peer group, like Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Danny Brown, Drake, Joey Bada$$, and Action Bronson. His choice of collaborators is exceptional, and the sort of high profile rappers and producers who aren’t included seems deliberate – he’s identifying himself with a very specific generation of rappers, and not looking to anyone older than Big K.R.I.T. to lend his work gravitas. The record sounds very right now, but in a way that will probably age very well, at least in the sense that it serves as a good snapshot of this particular moment in rap history.
A$AP’s taste goes beyond just knowing what’s hot this season. The best tracks on LongLiveA$AP are musically ambitious and fashion-forward in terms of production choices in hip-hop. “LVL,” a stoned track by Clams Casino, takes the abstracted CD-skipping sound of Swedish minimal techno producer The Field and finesses it into a rap track without sacrificing its ambient quality. “Wild for the Night,” his track with Skrillex, finds the unlikely middle ground between the rapper’s obsession with sloooooowed down Houston hip-hop and the producer’s hyperactive dubstep style.
A$AP, under the name Lord Flocko, is an impressive producer in his own right, revealing a knack cinematic, RZA-like beats on the dynamic and spooky title track, as well as the zoned-out finale, “Suddenly.” He only co-produced those cuts, but it’s clear that those songs go a bit a deeper than the rest, and he’s putting more of his personality out there. That said, it can be tricky to figure out exactly what his personality is actually like.
If there’s an problem with LongLiveA$AP, it’s that A$AP’s character sometimes gets eclipsed by all the flashy production and charismatic guests. He’s a technically gifted rapper with a highly expressive voice, but his lyrics are often sorta banal; just typical hip-hop boilerplate delivered with an almost unnecessary level of skill. This isn’t to say his words are bad – there’s some very vivid images and a few good jokes cracked here and there – but that for ever clever couplet, there’s waaay more just-okay lines that sound fantastic because he’s great with cadence and flipping his rhythmic patterns mid-flow.
His rapping may be beside the point, though. LongLiveA$AP is above all other things an expression of a well-defined aesthetic; in some ways it feels more like a Tumblr full of carefully curated reblogs than a rap record. Like a lot of young people charting out their taste, his choices are often aspirational, and it can be a matter of knowing what combinations of sounds, visuals, and ideas will impress or intrigue other people. In this way, he’s a lot like Lana Del Rey, with whom he collaborated on her video for “National Anthem.”
Lana’s albums are odd and inscrutable mainly because they’re like musical Pinterest boards, and the audience is left trying to reverse-engineer a coherent personality for her from a collection of provocative reference points. A$AP gives his listeners a lot more to work with, but in a way, he’s more challenging because he’s working in a genre where the cult of personality around vocalists is totally central to the music. By focusing so much on style and surface, A$AP has obscured a lot of his substance, and has perhaps unintentionally made himself something of an enigma. But that tension actually improves the record, and part of what makes LongLiveA$AP so compelling is in attempting to distinguish this guy’s character from his exquisite taste.