A$AP Rocky’s Exquisite Style

The fashion-obsessed rapper’s new album LongLiveA$AP feels more like a well-curated Tumblr than a typical rap record.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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