In the constant dialog created to discuss the evolution of rap music as it infiltrates mainstream media, critics, historians and academics have struggled to properly canonize the genre. Rap music has no standards and thus any music that the label of Hip Hop is placed into the same category. Which means an independent artist like Lil B can occupy the same space as an icon like Jay-Z. We rarely discuss rap music as an art form because of its nature to commercialize itself. However, we have recently seen a slew of new artists like Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., and A$AP Rocky defy commercialism and still manage to find footing in the mainstream without compromising their core aesthetics as artist.
A mainstream rap artist by the force of expectation will slip unconsciously into the realm of monetary disposal or gain through a stereotypical narrative of drugs, sex and violence. There is considerable pressure placed on new artists trying to break into the mainstream consciousness. On one hand a rapper could be praised for being creative (see Andre 3000) or dismissed for being too eccentric. (see MF DOOM) There is also the danger of being too commercial (see Yung Berg) or not commercial enough. (see Lupe Fiasco) However, we seem to be on the precipice of a new way in which the mainstream receives Hip Hop artists. Kendrick Lamar’s release of “Good kid, M.A.A.D. city” defied many of the expectations of mainstream rap but yet is being hailed as a commercial success. The release of A$AP Rocky’s official debut album “Long. Live. A$AP” is the next in a line of new releases that challenges the old perception of what rap music is to the mainstream audience.
A$AP Rocky was praised for taking the overused narrative of the urban New York experience and infusing it with a multi-regional and multi-cultural sound that was both a departure from the New York sound and an homage to it. The patchwork of style and delivery harkens back to the golden age of rap but also is an indication of the regional dialog that Hip Hop has enjoyed in the last decade. A$AP’s ability to interweave his personal experiences as an urbanite on the east coast, and the shared experience of being a young adult in the information age, has made him somewhat of a cult figure. Does A$AP’s foray into the mainstream continue to be the proverbial middle finger to Hip Hop expectation?
Long Live A$AP is a Hip Hop gothic novella with a sinister sound and tone. It also offers relief from darkness with glimpses of lighter themes like women and partying but these stereotypical themes are given minor attention like intermissions or interludes. From the opening title track “Long Live A$AP” with it’s haunting production supplied by Clams Casino. A$AP spits “I thought I’d probably die in prison, expensive taste in women/Ain’t had no pot to piss in, now my kitchen full of dishes”. His point of departure isn’t exactly new but there’s some authentic quality to the way he manages the balance between commercial appeal and independent creativity. “Long Live A$AP” isn’t the typical radio friendly jam you’d expect to hear in a top 40 but it’s appeal can’t be denied. There are a few cuts like the single “Goldie” that have garnered radio attention but even it’s high tempo beat is counter-balanced by the dark chopped & screwed chorus.
The dynamic of gothic darkness is present throughout the album with stand out joints like “Phoenix” and “Suddenly” which finds A$AP exploring the perils and benefits of his new found success. The album is mostly a neo Goth Hip Hop tale with A$AP Rocky at the center as narrator and director. There are a few tracks that don’t seem to fit within the framework that A$AP has effectively created. One such instance is “F*ckin’ Problems” which features Drake, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar. The song is a departure from the tome of the album and seems to be more of a point of entry for listeners not familiar with the self proclaimed “Pretty Flaco” The danger is that causal listeners may be inclined to believe that this is type of sound that A$AP is promoting. There’s also the female focused “Fashion Killa” which isn’t a bad song but it just seems to be in opposition of the dark theme at the core of the album. ‘Fashion Killa”
The landscape of Hip Hop is changing because of artists like A$AP Rocky willing to forgo the limiting expectations of what rap music is supposed to be. A track like ‘Wild For The Night” featuring DJ Skrillex is a mash-up of chopped & screwed, Bone Thugs & Harmony, Dip-Set, Electronic, and dancehall. This is yet another song that would rarely get rotation on a radio program but is such an infectiously great production that it may indeed find its way on a local station. “Hell” featuring Santigold has the sound of a soundtrack from an 80’s teen flick. Visions of teenage curiosity, discovery and rebellion are conjured as Santigold’s hypnotic vocals are juxtaposed to A$AP’s charismatic delivery. The formula to this track is the antithesis of what rap music has been molded into to fit radio rotations.
There are few mistakes about this project that are glaring. One problem that many new artists face is the dilemma of features both production wise and guest artists. “Long Live A$AP” has its fair share of guests and one particular example is the heavily populated “1 Train” which features Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, YelaWolf, Action Bronson, Joey BadA$$, and Big K.R.I.T. The song essentially is homage to the classic posse cuts of the 90’s. Some critics may complain that there are too many arttst and just one microphone. Nevertheless each artist featured shares a similar aesthetic of remaining true to his or her particular point of departure. Each artist respectively has gained notoriety in most circles but has refused to compromise to achieve success. “1 Train” is produced by Hit Boy, which adds another layer of depth to the decision to create a record with the new faces of the genre. The song isn’t a classic but the spirit of its purpose rings through.
A$AP shares a unique chemistry with TDE’s School Boy Q which is on full display on the choppy “PMW”. The track finds each artist bouncing off the late 90’s southern inspired beat with double time delivery. A$AP at this point has mastered the double time flow and knows how to insert it within the structure of his otherwise laid back delivery. Check out “LVL” and the way A$AP seems to almost be keeping a demon at bay with his start and stop flow. There seems to be something lurking in the background that keeps you tuned in waiting in anticipation for a reveal that never transpires.
“Long. Live. A$AP” may not be the crossover that record execs may have been clamoring for since Rocky was signed to RCA, but it is a solid continuation to the neo-gothic Hip Hop narrative started with “Live. Love. A$AP”. “Long. Live. A$AP” is very much a sequel to Live Love A$AP but it’s darker tone for the much of the content suggest that there is a shadowy revolution in Hip Hop on the horizon. The first salvos against the “Trap” and “Pop” centered trends in Hip Hop have been launched and all we can do is wait for the results of the impact. The reaction of the industry has been mixed as the next generation attacks the foundation of mainstream ideology but much like “Good kid, M.A.A.D. city”, “Long. Live. A$AP” is changing the perception of what mainstream Hip Hop has the potential to be.