Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A$AP Rocky: LongLiveA$AP (2013)



You remember that interview Paul McCartney gave announcing his break from the Beatles, wherein among other things he noted the way that Let It Be had become an old record before it even came out? This comes to mind a lot when we spend time with LongLiveA$AP, an album that even in its title suggests the iconography of a comeback -- but it's the dude's first LP. It seems like so long ago already that this record's first hot single "Goldie" showed up and already seemed to signal that one of hip hop's youngest golden boys was starting to sound a little exhausted -- his unwavering, consistent flow as smooth as ever, yeah, but now stunted by expectation like he's already on the defense about a mythology he long since established succinctly, one that already made itself familiar to us before we could buy a note of his music. Produced by Hit-Boy with a sort of goofily strident Jack in the Box toy of a hook, "Goldie" is engagingly brief but also overblown ("to complement the mink") and just doesn't have the presence of a big memorable radio moment. And it still trades a few yards further ahead of the curve than the Skrillex cameo "Wild for the Night," which mixed in with its wheat-thin revision of some of the most determinedly annoying sequencer trills of R&B radio circa 2004 is like this bonkers signal of what a weird world popular music has really become by now. And yet A$AP Rocky himself, the supposed star of this production, seems scarcely to be doing much to assert his control over it.

A couple of years ago, I was one of many enamored with A$AP Rocky's autumn 2011 mixtape LiveLoveA$AP, not to be (read: inevitably to be) confused with his oft-delayed debut album LongLiveA$AP, which now sits before us at last. We've learned since then that he's a bit of a dickbag; did you read the interview in which he asserted that he wanted to have sex with Lana Del Rey less after he came to respect her, thus offering some pandering old-world values on both femininity and sexuality in one fell swoop? But we can choose to avoid brutish dudes who say and do misogynistic shit in our culture and then we can spend the rest of our lives avoiding James Brown and John Ford, so the point's somewhat moot. But if we come to LongLive with a bias, what supports it is not Rocky's less-distinctive-than-before lyrics but the rocky bounce between malaise and caffeinated drive in his performance style. The excitement over his rapid-wealth burst onto the scene has long faded now, and what's technically a first album comes to feel like a grab at redemption already. The record opens what seems almost an obligatory feeling of hazy drift-off in its ambiance, Rocky struggling to announce himself as fate swallows him. He's dying in prison, but he still has to rant and rave -- none too originally, but passionately -- about hypocritic Christians and, uh, Santa. And by the time the first fade comes, he's won us over again at least in part: that lively brew of tricks and alter egos and general feverishness he calls forth when he feels like it, when he wants to make his strongest impression, is actually worthy of Kendrick Lamar. But Rocky has far less to say, cause he's still just a baby.

That baby is one who decided to make himself a career in hip hop just for the hell of it, and we can tell by his pay stubs that he was justified in the endeavor. But maybe easy is too easy sometimes -- throughout this record, lethargy sets in as soon as Rocky asserts himself, often leaving others like Lamar or Schoolboy Q or (memorably) Danny Brown to pick up his slack. His relative apathy isn't even of the smoked-out variety like Curren$y's charming trippiness, but in this case at least it seems almost conceptual, a kissoff posture to prove a point; LongLive is a surprisingly drab affair, which isn't fully a negative criticism. "PMW" holds a familiar fusion of bigness and snails-pace sound and center-stages a sense of welcome desperation in A$AP's voice, and it's just a strange and lumbering enough grind to be intriguing and infectious. But as will prove typical, he dilutes it with a tired roll call of clichés; he's still a pretty motherfucker, lest you forget, but "pussy money weed / yeah" recalls nothing so much as that dunderheaded hook at the center of Limp Bizkit's "Nookie," something I never wanted to relive (can't speak for you kind folks). I slightly prefer the Zen-like "ungh, pain" that drives the lounged-up trip hop "Pain," or even "lights camera action" ad nauseum. Anything. But the most compelling rapping here is all on the rather quaint (in both form and content) all-star lineup "1Train," which says a lot. Laid up against that, I actually don't mind a bit of arrogant prickishness. I'm in luck cause there's plenty, and though the hungover dance music of "LVL" is already just as in danger of sounding outdated as the bizarre Skrillex track, it is bewildering enough to be a singular experience. And stretch-skewed, slowed-the-fuck-down A$AP is really more fun at this point than whatever else he's doing.

When the breakneck-impossible skill demonstrated on Rocky's old mixtape bullhorn bursts through the dross and weird, there's genuine artistry to be found here, and mixed in with the oddity of what remains we have to count this record as something of a victory. Three cuts in particular fuel the starmaking potential of the record: my personal choice for the full breadth is "Hell" -- a stunning, troubling spiritual of sorts, a cartoon tour of an infernal dark night with disorienting, miserable echoed vocals and chilly vastness suggestive more than anything of Cab Calloway's cycle through the afterworld in the Fleischers' cartoon "Snow White." Rocky is wallpaper here, but so what? He's bold enough to know how rich this is and gives it up to Clams Casino's brilliantly unsettling production and, maybe more importantly, a shattering chorus by Santigold. I'm nearly as enamored of the glorious hi-NRG throwback "Fashion Killa," on which A$AP seems to surrender to the widescreen seduction with full force enthusiasm; that as well as the piece's surprising warmth make it the most utterly infectious thing here, except for...

Well, you know the one. "Fuckin' Problems" is maybe the song of 2013 so far, and to Rocky and his far-flung cabinet's eternal credit, it's a thoroughly unique creation despite its myriad throwbacks and influences, a pun-heavy and wicked classicist-nutzoid groove evoking Stan Freberg by way of Ice-T. It's here that everything suddenly snaps into gear better and brighter than on Rocky's first tape; the track's evil and vicious, dumb even, but its mad-scientist groove is so deliciously clever that even its deplorable sarcasm resonates, and there's something magnificent on a "Lola" level about how the central couplet winds up: "I love bad bitches, that's my fuckin' problem" -- and wait for it -- "and yeah I like to fuck, I got a fuckin' problem." You dig? The chrome to your dome make you sweat like me? Come on. And this isn't "Ms. Jackson" or anything, but take your pick on whether the complete absurdity of "I'm the nigga / The nigga nigga" (forever? for ever ever?) or "Stare up at the stars and put the Beatles on" makes you gladder to be alive. Hey, Kendrick's here; it's fun. Drake's even here and he also fucking produced the thing, by far his greatest cultural accomplishment to date.

That Drake would provide the most indelible, mysterious beats and track here -- its chorus a monster, its verses heart-flippingly shapeless -- is one of the many surprises A$AP's offered in this fragmented but highly worthwhile mess. Danger Mouse contributes too, and his track "Phoenix" is so much a symbol of his own tastes and his own now-fading era that it's like, who decided what belonged here? The words are added to the heap of vaguely nonsensical rants about "Illuminati lies" but Danger acts like he's unsure if he's on top of the Geto Boys or Coldplay, casting Rocky's tonguetwist -- which, by the way, is weirdly and surely unintentionally reminiscent of the midsized '70s Beach Boys hit "It's OK," only too appropriate given how good a time Mike Love and A$AP Rocky would have discussing "bitches" -- against, uh, gospel? Gangsta's lament circa '93? The organic piano and beat and the in-vogue distortion? What the fuck is he doing? Danger Mouse's mere presence here, much less the terrifying Frankenstein creation he conjures up once he arrives, is the major outlier here and yet also a microcosm of this bizarrely put-together album.

It never really falls into place, not except those few seconds on "Fuckin' Problems" when everyone in the galaxy is having a beachball-bursting good fucking time, but I'm still not sure I'm actually criticizing this record. I might forget a lot of things but I doubt the genuine originality and unnerving strangeness of something like creepy-crawly finale "Suddenly" will leave me anytime soon. This one has A$AP cleverly deconstructing himself over a freaky-deaky vocal sample that's probably not actually that discomforting but is repeatedly drilled down into wispy horror and stretched weirdness heading out to oblivion. What's happening here is actually an old DJing trick, the stop-start of a familiar bite of a celebratory song or moment as last-call approaches, as people are drunk enough to sing along and lose themselves a bit. But it's turned on its head like some spotlight cast on all our drunken indulgences, and somewhere behind the turntables Rocky stands there laughing knowingly with an evil look in his eyes. Dunno what he'll do now but I'm slightly afraid of it.

LiveLoveA$AP (2011)

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