Rocky debuts stellar sophomore album

When A$AP Rocky stumbled onto the rap scene in 2011 with his debut mixtape Live.Love.A$AP, much of the hip-hop community didn’t know what to make of him. Rakim “Rocky” Mayers is a gangly, French-braided Harlem 20-something named after East Coast hip-hop legend Rakim. The shared name of Rakim is the extent of the similarities between the two. Despite Rocky’s East Coast roots, his sound on his debut is heavily influenced by, and borrowed heavily from, Houston’s chopped-and-screwed, bass-heavy production, which saw its apex with the likes of artists like DJ Screw, Lil’ Keke and U.G.K.

Live.Love is a master class in downtempo hip-hop production, and though its sound might have divided devoted hip-hop listeners and purist critics, the appeal was undeniable: Rocky parlayed the mixtape’s success into a  $3-million deal with Sony, and his promotional tour sold out across the country. Rocky’s spiritual follow-up to Live.Love.A$AP is in fact Rocky’s major label debut album, the highly anticipated new Long.Live.A$AP which was released on Tuesday.

The album opens with the title track — a clap of thunder, grinding bassline and plinking synths sprinkled in the background. Rocky opens with the words “I thought I’d probably die in prison, expensive taste in women / Ain’t had no pot to piss in, now my kitchen full of dishes.” The two lines represent much of Rocky’s lyrical content — well-worn rap clichés like the classic “rags-to-riches” story narrated with a reedy delivery that doubles as its own rhythmic instrument. Rocky is no stranger to internal rhymes and complex assonance, and he knowingly stresses the right vowels in the interest of musicality better than any emcee since Eminem.

With this holistic approach to music comes compromise in the form of actual content: there’s very little substantive lyricism to be had here. Rocky’s lyrical themes rarely stray from his rough upbringing, his success, his gold teeth, his peerless swagger, his enjoyment of alternative medication and the fact that women are rather fond of him. Despite this, no rapper can match the musical and poetic flourish with which Rocky delivers what would otherwise be outright hip-hop banality.

Long.Live.A$AP’s success relies primarily on the syrupy, atmospheric production of relative newcomers in Clams Casino and A$AP Ty Beats as much as it does on Rocky’s charisma and technical gifts as an emcee. Long.Live.A$AP builds on the two primary strengths of Rocky’s first effort but also provides more uptempo production and experimentation in collaborations, including a surprising co-production with dubstep artist Skrillex.

Clams Casino returns for two contributions to the album including “LVL,” a more polished production in line with his previous contribution on Live.Love, with gritty, stuttering synthesizers grinding over a booming bassline. An ethereal voice chanting “ASAP Rocky” only adds to the overall celestial feel of the track.

“1 Train,” produced by Hit-Boy, places a string loop over traditional boom-bap drums, an effective canvas for the litany of featured rappers that reads like a “who’s who” in underground hip-hop including Big K.R.I.T., Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Action Bronson and Yelawolf. Danny Brown’s verse stands out in particular, a heinously raunchy affair with a couple gut-busting punch lines unfit to print.

“Wild for the Night,” the much-ballyhooed collaboration with Skrillex, opens with Rocky rapping in his chopped-and-screwed voice over a simple drum pattern. After the first sixteen bars, the doors on the track fly off; pairing Rocky’s irresponsible lyrics with Skrillex’s screaming synthesizers generates an infectious energy, and it becomes clear Rocky has a club banger on his hands.

For all of its strong points, the album falters when Rocky is forced to step out of his comfort zone and slog away in
label-compulsory exercises. Rocky sounds noticeably uncomfortable name-checking expensive labels in “Fashion Killa,” a shameless attempt to pander to the female demographic. The only thing more painful than the awkward hook on “Fashion Killa” is probably the boardroom arm-twisting accountable for the track’s inclusion.

“PMW (All I Really Need)” finds Rocky’s tour mate and Black Hippy member ScHoolboy Q collaborating once again, except this iteration fails to deliver on the frenetic energy of previous joint-effort “Hands on the Wheel” or the raw machismo of “Brand New Guy.”

The album draws to a close with the Rocky-produced “Suddenly,” which sports a minimalist production that sees Rocky at his most candid over a muffled vocal sample fading in and out of earshot. Rocky focuses more on lyrical content here, as he narrates vignettes of his childhood and expresses genuine surprise at his meteoric rise to fame. The track is a fitting close to a startlingly well-conceived debut. After all, only fifteen months have passed since the release of Live.Love.A$AP when Rocky was a relative unknown. With Long.Live.A$AP, Rocky has launched himself to the forefront of hip hop along with Kendrick Lamar as potential ambassadors for the genre to future generations. Perhaps for Rocky, it’s one more thing he could share in common with the elder Rakim.