“I guess the new me just gon’ take some getting’ used to”
— A$AP Rocky, “Excuse Me”
At age 26, A$AP Rocky already has one iconic mixtape to his credit (Live. Love. A$AP.), one monster hit single to his name (“Fuckin’ Problems” of course), and even with the early surprise release of At. Long. Last. A$AP., two chart-topping albums. Yet there is a chasm of difference between 2013’s Long. Live. A$AP and At. Long. Last. A$AP., and that’s largely due to the fact that in between releases, Rocky’s done-good narrative took several dramatic left turns.
Even with his long-standing group A$AP Mob prepping and then abruptly canceling a long-in-the-works posse long player, it was the early 2015 death of founding member A$AP Yams that had a profound effect on him. He says he didn’t use drugs to cope with the massive loss, but after getting some LSD from ILoveMakonnen at SXSW, he went on to have three orgies in one night. Following such hedonistic thrills, he very much wanted to take his hotly-anticipated new album in a more drug-friendly direction. Gone is in-house producer A$AP Ty Beats along with Rocky’s musical muse Clams Casino; those standbys were replaced by Danger Mouse and a British street busker named Joe Fox, who Rocky just picked up on a whim.
The result? A remarkably dry, surprisingly cached-out psychedelic opus that is lacking in both purpose and memorable moments.
For those following Rocky’s difficult 2015, one wouldn’t blame him if he wanted to devote an entire disc to his fallen mentor, but outside of closing track “Back Home” (which features one of the album’s most lively beats), At. Long. Last. A$AP. primarily stays in his lyrical wheelhouse, tackling drug use, social ills, and his trademark brand of braggadocio. “Your favorite rappers’ corpses couldn’t measure my importance,” he boasts on the moody “Canal St.”, but his more laid-back flow telegraphs different intent this time out. His punchlines sound more like obligations, as if that id-as-battering-ram hunger that fueled his first mixtape has slowly eased out of him.
Part of this is due to Rocky’s change of sonic venue, here avoiding easy pop hits in favor of reverb-heavy percussion and a slew of hazy keyboards and cut-up soul samples. “Fine Whine” plays like chopped-and-screwed number in reverse, opening with pitch-shifted vocals and lighted-by-lampposts keyboards before upping the BPM once M.I.A. and Future join in. Their lightly misogynistic verses come in sharp contrast to Rocky’s general fame laments (“I become the druggy / Enhance my fame and money”), making for a weirdly disjointed experience. Even stranger is how this actually isn’t the only time this happens on At. Long. Last. A$AP.; even the Schoolboy Q feature “Electric Body” can’t decide whether it wants to be a gloating success story or a stripper staple. In the end, it attempts to have it both ways: “This year I turned into the racist / All I wanna see is green faces” Rocky notes.
At other points, the album experiments around with “channel changing” beat structures, songs veering from one sample to another with a burst of TV static being the only binding agent. During “Max B”, a solid desert-funk beat is being smash-cut against Joe Fox’s pleading acoustic lament, as if two songs are actually fighting for the same track space. It’s an unnecessary stylistic choice that at least feels more carefully planned out on the Kanye West feature “Jukebox Joints”, which not only features the most “classic sounding” Kanye we’ve heard in years, but also the faintest whisper of the hunger we’ve come to expect from Rocky at his best:
Listen close I got some shit to tell you, motherfuckers get familiar
It’s not just model bitches on my genitalia
Did Azalea’s from Australia, trips to Venezuela
Cinderella’s under my umbrella for different weather
Ella, ella, ay just play it like I didn’t tell ya
Yet, even with that none-too-obvious dig at his former paramour Iggy Azalea, Kanye surprisingly proves more than able to one-up the headliner, abruptly concluding his own verse (during which he refers to himself as Ye Guevara) with ego-stroking done right, screaming “They wanna throw me under a white jail / ‘cos I’m a black man with the confidence of a white male!”
So what happened to Rocky? He clearly doesn’t need to be doing shameless club cuts like “M’$” or indulging in alter-egos like he does with “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2 (LPFJ2)”. Even during the former track, he still gets outshined by his own guest — in this case, a defiant Lil’ Wayne claiming that his former label Cash Money Records is no more. The never-ending barrage of drab textures don’t help matters either, but every so often, we get flashes of a rejuvenated, tripped-out Rocky persona that suits him damn well. “L$D” might even be the best track here, playing around with a slightly more accessible melody against lyrics that don’t do much on the wordplay front but nonetheless sound like they come from the heart, his delivery slower, more deliberate, and downright engaging as he stumbles around with real romantic emotions while clumsily high as hell.
Despite the increasingly-monochromatic nature of Danger Mouse’s production work (evidenced on virtually everything he touches here), some of Rocky’s flirtations with the occasional pop melody proves surprisingly gratifying. The great twosome of “West Side Highway” and “Wavybone” (the latter featuring an unearthed verse from the late great Pimp C of UGK) shows what an actual drugged-out album from Rocky would sound like, and the results are tantalizing. (“I’m Richard Porter mixed with Mr. Porter” might even be his best zinger here.)
It’s just a shame that the rest of At. Long. Last. A$AP. never ends up settling on a definitive tone, theme, or driving intention, the bland tempos and Rocky’s own withdrawn presentation making this big-budget production sound more like an afterthought than it does a full-blown artistic statement. People will dig for meaning and find it if they want to, but if Live. Love. A$AP. was the start of Rocky’s trip, then At. Long. Last. A$AP. makes for one hell of a disappointing comedown.