The young Harlem MC A$AP Rocky has spent the lead up to the release of his sophomore studio album making bold claims and announcing a range of big-name guest features and collaborations which he has no doubt intended to lend an air of deeper artistic credibility to his latest record. Leaving memories of his directionless 2013 debut album Long.Live.A$AP - itself largely comprised of weaker variations on ideas first put forth on his outstanding 2011 debut mixtape Live.Love.A$AP - the rapper born Rakim Mayers has here made his best effort at reaching the levels of critical praise and commercial recognition enjoyed by peers such as Kendrick Lamar and Drake.
We last heard from Rocky on his debut album Long.Live.A$AP, which was a mildly disappointing, stylistically overwrought record, feeling confused and rushed with label pressure in an attempt to capitalise on the massive demand his independent work had built. Assisted by his fellow members of the A$AP Mob, in particular the nascent A$AP Ferg, Rocky had acquired the sort of attention and praise to which any young musician aspires, only to release an album which didn’t contain many songs of the quality of those on his debut mixtape. For as much as his collaborations with Clams Casino have consistently featured the innovative and well-crafted beats that producer is known for, by 2013 more of the same (as we saw on tracks like LVL and Hell) felt like a letdown. A couple of highlights couldn’t make up for the lack of hits and overabundance of filler on Long.Live.A$AP.
Judging from the two-year-long silence from that album until this follow-up, At.Long.Last.A$AP, one can only imagine that Rocky has been hard at work on deciding how he wants to define himself as an artist at this critical junction, with his eyes set firmly on the horizon.
“Took the whole year off just to learn to make beats/ Drop the flames on my release and leave the streets all smokin’,” he raps on Jukebox Joints, and that experience shows: this album features a level of stylistic cohesion that Rocky hasn’t achieved or even attempted before. With a newfound fondness for the sorts of soul-infused, 1960s-inspired hip-hop production long favoured by rappers such as Kanye West and Mos Def (both of whom are featured here, alongside veteran rocker Rod Stewart and up-and-coming English folk singer Joe Fox, amongst many others), and with executive producer Danger Mouse on board, Rocky’s sound on this record is significantly more considered and focused than it has been before. Oddly enough, Rocky and Danger Mouse previously worked together on the track Phoenix from Long.Live.A$AP with far less impressive results - perhaps speaking to the maturity Rocky has acquired as an artist in the time since then.
Opening track Holy Ghost features a lyrical depth beyond what Rocky has typically been known for, delivered with his trademark braggadocio over a woozy vintage beat; all bluesy guitar and analogue drums, with the young Joe Fox singing a soulful chorus. It’s a great mission statement and a very promising start to the record.
Musically, most tracks here continue in a similar vein, though usually with increasingly less lyrical promise. Too often, Rocky seems content to fall back on the same “money, clothes, hoes,” approach he has been defaulting to since the beginning of his career. It’s a shame, since he is clearly capable of penning more meaningful content, yet Rocky seems unwilling to leave the club too far in the rear vision mirror. On several tracks here, the juxtaposition of his clichéd lyrical tropes to the intricate and soulful instrumentals is too harsh, and the resultant songs fall a bit flat when it comes to the verses - the single Everyday which also features Rod Stewart, Miguel, & Mark Ronson is the most jarring example. Provided with the perfect backdrop to explore his more heartfelt material, Rocky seems content to simply skate by on his plentiful stock of meaningless boasts: “I look so fucking good most dykes’ll fuck me,” he raps, and the song is left feeling like a missed opportunity.
Lead single Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2 - which has no pretensions of being anything other than a club banger - features a more contemporary and appropriate backing for Rocky to let his brags loose on; the track works simply because Rocky is delivering on the songs intended purpose. Although LPFJ2 doesn’t really fit in stylistically with the overall direction of the album, there is certainly a case to be made for playing to one’s strengths when the occasion calls for it.
Rocky continues in the same vein on the Lil Wayne collaboration M’$ and the UGK and Juicy J collaboration Wavybone, where his brags also feel more at home and more called for, given the beats he’s rapping over and the rappers he’s performing alongside. It’s all about context; Rocky could easily make an album full entirely of such beats and such raps, and he would undoubtedly have a successful result. The question is whether he should settle for simply dumbing his music down; how much talent and potential he might be wasting if he did so.
There’s no doubt Rocky thrives in such environs, but on A.L.L.A. he does seem to want to have his cake and eat it too, when he places contemporary club tracks like LPFJ2 alongside the ’60s-inspired deeper cuts. “Let’s get past all the swag, trapping, and fashion talking,” goes another line on Jukebox Joints, while references to Raf Simons, Rick Owens, and Maison Martin Margiela are peppered throughout the entire album. The contradictory approaches here are a detriment to the record as a whole because Rocky seems unwilling to completely commit to one lyrical principle or one stylistic approach, even at the cost of artistic consistency.
It is in this respect that Rocky is most removed from a Kendrick Lamar, for instance: while the latter is a decisive and consistent lyricist who throughout his career has displayed almost no lapses in commitment to his overarching message, Rocky can at times seem out of his depth when he simply raps what is easiest and not what would serve to further his art - a real shame, especially when presented with beats of the calibre of those here.
Elsewhere, the (wonderfully) Kanye West-produced Jukebox Joints is a classic meandering soul cut that maintains a sense of playfulness throughout, and it is undoubtedly an album highlight. Rocky’s eye for beats has always been keen-sighted, and this album is a delight on the basis of the instrumentals and hooks alone - the rapping is often just gravy.
Closing track Back Home in particular features one of the best beats Rocky has ever appeared on; an old school Dilla-esque grainy off-kilter jam to which Rocky does justice with his precise rapid-fire verses, before a fantastic if too-brief guest verse from the artist formerly known as Mos Def, which is a smart pairing over such an instrumental. The album itself closes with a woozy sample of the late A$AP Yams rambling on tape; hyping Rocky up like a coach before a game, letting him loose on the world. It’s a fitting and touching tribute to the recently departed A$AP Mob curator and taste-maker, who in the lead up to his death was also one of the executive producers on A.L.L.A.
This album is a creative success largely because, as the old adage goes, we are the company we keep - and Rocky has more discerningly chosen his collaborators here. He has progressed from 2013’s awkward dubstep flirtations and middling innovation to a sound which is more or less a comfortable and inspiring fit for him.
Throughout, there is a definite sense that Rocky displays a great deal of respect for the many rap veterans who appear as guests on the album; in fact, his gift for collaboration is one of his greatest strengths. Rocky has always had a magpie-ish approach to borrowing elements from the various sub genres of hip-hop, and he uses the guest features on this album to pay due respect to artists like Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia (who doubles as yet another executive producer on this record) and UGK who have clearly influenced him ever since the Live.Love.A$AP days.
The inimitable Danger Mouse’s influence is evident across every track here; from the subtle guitar lines that form a melodic backdrop to many tracks, to the organ chords and analog drums on cuts such as lead single Everyday, the prolific producer proves to be the perfect fit for Rocky. Even musicians like The Black Key’s Dan Auerbach laid down some of the guitar parts on the record, and one suspects Danger Mouse may have been the man to make such connections, given his diverse production credits amongst the rock crowd Rocky appears to be interested in mingling with.
A.L.L.A. is not entirely cohesive, and yet given there is very little filler material across the length of the 66 minute record (although the half-sung bore L$D and tracks like the middling West Side Highway and Better Things could have been left off to save us all some time), Rocky has done well to appeal to a range of tastes while still preserving a more uniting vision for this project than that of his first album.
While A$AP Rocky’s flow hasn’t progressed nearly as much as the musical backdrop he performs against has, and while his lyrical content in particular hasn’t matured as much as one hopes it might have, this album represents a decisive step in the right direction for an artist who has at times seemed in danger of being directionless. Few but the rapper himself would describe Rocky as “the God MC,” and yet beyond the bold claims he is so fond of making and his lack of commitment to tackling more challenging lyrical themes, here in 2015 is at least a Rocky who is well aware of the direction he wants to travel; a rapper in sync with his finely tuned ear as a producer and ready to take his first steps towards creating the classic artwork of a record of which he has always seemed capable. At long last, indeed.
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