“Harlem’s what I’m reppin’,” said ASAP Rocky over and again on 2011’s LiveLoveASAP mixtape. Okay, but the defining narrative on the 24-year-old so far has revolved around his penchant for embracing sounds with origins everywhere but his native New York. That tape, his breakout, often found Rocky amid a seamless composite of disparate pieces: hooks built from codeine-lubricated vocals traceable back to DJ Screw and the S.U.C.; a pliant flow seemingly derived entirely from Wish Bone’s verse on Bone Thugs’ “East Eternal 1999”; and beats from or in the vein of Clams Casino and the New Jersey producer’s diffuse grandeur. For those keeping score at home, those are three things rooted in Houston, Cleveland, and hours of YouTube sample-searching, respectively. And on LongLiveASAP, his major-label debut, Rocky expands his horizons even further, indulging in relative experimentation while also adhering to the gifts that have catapulted him to stardom in just over a year.
There’s something of a trip-hop influence embedded in much of this music; opener “LongLiveASAP”, for instance, has a precedent in something like the dark-tinted churn of Sneaker Pimps’ “Spin Spin Sugar”. But that only begins to catalog all that’s going on here. The much-blogged-about Skrillex collaboration “Wild for the Night” opens with some of those screwed-up vocals but soon erupts into lightning brostep. Three tracks later, Danger Mouse, another unlikely collaborator, gets a production credit on “Phoenix”, which is testimony to the album’s panoramic nature in itself. Funny thing is, while Rocky is nowhere near as malleable as, say, man of the moment Kendrick Lamar, he handles every surprise here with so much grace as to lead the listener to wonder what’s more surprising in the first place – his dexterity or his immaculate beat selection.
Take the first three tracks. Over its five minutes, “LongLiveASAP” finds Rocky cycling through virtually every flow imaginable, be it by taking things relatively slow and bending the last word of every line or by diving into not-a-millisecond-wasted triple-time. It’s dizzying and it’s awesome. Then, on lead single “Goldie”, dude evens things out and gains an almost melodic bite – it’s one of those songs where the cadence of every line seems to fit absolutely perfectly with whatever’s happening in the beat (in this case, bouncing pan flute riffs and overall chromed-out-ness). And on the Schoolboy Q-assisted “PMW (All I Really Need)”, Rocky alternates with ease between that triple-time and the most extended showing yet of his actually-not-that-bad singing. Ultimately, It’s things like these that are bound to fend off those great many Rocky naysayers who deem him all style, no substance.
Let’s talk about style for a minute, though. Like T.I. circa Trap Muzik or, shit, even pre-“retirement” Jay-Z, Rocky is one of those guys who just sound cool as hell at all times. Complementing this, naturally, is his habit of rapping about the other things that make his swagger so impressive, spouting sartorial endorsements (Margiela! Balenciaga! Audemars Piguet! More names with lots of vowels!) and describing the dozens of ways he fills his cups (cups which, staying true to his Houston influences, undoubtedly have Jolly Ranchers at the bottom). But, despite his insistence that he “ain’t no conscious cat,” we get glimpses of his humanity here, too. There are several references to suicide, both of the door persuasion and of the, uh, fatal kind. And on “Phoenix”, we find Rocky sunk in philosophy, which, while maybe falling short in the profundity department, makes up for groaners like “Yes, I’m the shit – tell me, do it stink?”: “It’s a fine line between truth and lies / Jesus Christ never lied, still was crucified.”
Despite that timeless wisdom, this is a very now album. The ubiquitous 2 Chainz shows up on “Fuckin’ Problems”, and there is more than one allusion to this mysterious Molly lass apparently every rapper has befriended in recent months. But also appearing is “1 Train”, the Only Built 4 Cuban Linx-reminiscent, cypher-resembling cut that marks Rocky’s first foray into those Big Apple sounds he’s been avoiding. Another one of the major talking-points re: Rocky is the opportunity he supposedly has to “bring New York back,” or whatever, provided that he excavates sounds like these more often. As we now know, it’s not that he won’t. It’s that, as the album as a whole shows, he’s had better ideas to chase down first.
Essential Tracks: “LongLiveASAP”, “Goldie”, and “Fashion Killa”