As much as any major label debut in recent memory, what angle one approaches Long. Live. A$AP from will pretty easily color how one judges it. A$AP Rocky just sort of appeared two years ago, springing out of YouTube into collaborations with Main Attrakionz, Juicy J and Smoke DZA. He put a tidy little bow on that spontaneous combustion with LiveLoveA$AP, one of the year’s most lauded free albums (remarkably still available at said price). But for some, image seemed to dominate his sudden appearance at the front of everyone’s minds, theories that were only strengthened by his relative absence from the scene throughout 2012. The big three-million dollar album kept getting it’s release pushed back, from summer of 2012 through date after date until now. And other than sparring guest appearances, we didn’t hear much from Rocky other than the b-sides collection Goldie (originally intended as a lead single, “Goldie” and its eponymous EP first surfaced April of last year) and decidedly lost at sea A$AP Mob mixtape. So if any of your theories on Rocky revolve around his perceived lack of personality, lack of definitive verses, increasing reliance on brandnamedropping and so forth, Long. Live. A$AP potentially has a lot to prove to you.
I’ll take a different side, since I loved the mixtape. One that cedes the point you don’t learn much about A$AP’s particular quirks unless you take the time to watch him give interviews, which at least reveal that he’s basically any kid with a lot of big ideas you might run into on a college campus, unabashedly amazed at what the world is capable of. If you think about how truly odd it is for a Harlem kid to pin his career, from the very start, on mimicking the atmosphere of Main Attrakionz while rapping like a cross between Big Boi and some combination of Bone Thugs… internet generation or not, it’s a brave play. That he pulled it off, let alone well, was something to appreciate. But I completely agree that it’s hard, on record, to tell just who A$AP Rocky is trying to be. His ear for background music and talent for fitting words to their rhythms remains notable, but other than his fashion sense (which, he’ll readily admit, is a large part of who he is outside of music) and appreciation for sex it’s hard to know who this guy is. Long. Live. A$AP doesn’t change that.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of interesting things going on here. “Wild for the Night”, the surprise Skrillex collaboration placed in the exact middle of the album, doesn’t have any business sounding as natural as it does. Nothing about the track is a surprise sonically, it just works in some very aloof, devil may care way. “Pain” is this collaboration with California outfit OverDoz. that feels very much like a group of kids hanging out in a bedroom trying to cut a mood piece. The thing is they come so close to getting it right you’re a little surprised RCA didn’t insist on bringing someone bigger in to polish it all up. ScHoolboy Q shows up with “PMW”, a song that rightfully sounds like a track they left on the cutting room floor of Habits & Contradictions; if you loved “Hands on the Wheel”, here’s it’s more reserved brother. Newly branded lead single “Fuckin’ Problems” may or may not be immediately familiar—I’m told it’s getting a ton of play, but I haven’t heard much from it. It’s a fun enough song for what it is, but Kendrick Lamar turns in his first of two verses on the album and they’re both delivered terribly by most standards, not just Kendrick’s. They’re also both on posse cuts, the other being “1 Train”. That one goes in the other direction, scouring the internet for verses from Action Bronson, Lamar, Danny Brown, Yelawolf and Joey Bada$$.
Oddly, these are also two of the most plain tracks on the album. “1 Train” just seems to go on forever despite a lot of solid verses, Hit-Boy’s beat just fails to bring any energy to the situation. You can feel him going for a classic 1993, gritty NYC type cypher beat but it’s just not there, a simple loud drum loop and a quickly grating violin swirl. It changes up a little but overall doesn’t really get the Aftermath meets DITC vibe it’s going for. It’s especially a shame considering the talents of the rappers on hand, and the risks that are taken elsewhere: normally producers of pop records, Jim Jonsin and Rico Love teamed up with another four producers to whip up the title- and opening-track “Long Live A$AP”, and it’s stunning. It feels like a Swedish dream pop songstress fronting Campfire Headphase-era Boards of Canada in collaboration with Drumma Boy. That A$AP raps on the track is truthfully of very little consequence to how much you’ll enjoy it, and this is really where it’s seemed Rocky’s fit from the start. That’s probably why it takes a couple listens to understand exactly how vapid “Fashion Killa” is, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in Rocky’s measured delivery and Friendzone’s unmistakable cloud music. But it is vapid, and without many tracks that match up to the novelty of “Long Live A$AP” and “Fashion Killa” musically or “Wild for the Night” and “1 Train” ambitiously, too often I can catch myself totally detached from the music.
It doesn’t help that when he tries to get more vulnerable, like “Phoenix” in which he threatens suicide before rising above his haters or “Hell”, a Santigold collaboration that might have been better off remaining just hers. So what does Long. Live. A$AP really tell us about A$AP Rocky? He’s still a great talent vocally, but it remains to be seen if he can match his voice with his pen. And while his taste in tunes lends to a fairly unique album on a mainstream level, this album mostly feels like a safe take on the “cloud rap” style that’s taken Bandcamp and Soundcloud accounts by storm over the past 16 months. Safe, generally, is the best way to summarize this album, which is interesting considering the calculated risk his entire career is based on. But this album isn’t the one to bank on what A$AP Rocky’s initial hype was really all about, opting for a sleeker, slightly more vain take on the character. A fine enough retail debut, but when you can get the stronger, more unique product for free that’s a strange thing to strongly recommend anyone.