Woe be unto the member of the squad.
The perks of riding with a mob are obvious - a guaranteed paycheck and ready access to all manners of sin thanks to your superstar leader - but the mob also erases. From The Furious Five to the St. Lunatics to the A$AP Mob, the first person from the crew to blow up was the first person from the crew to blow up for a reason. Even if they weren't technically the most talented, they had that intangible star quality, they were the ones who walked in a room and, without saying a word, commanded attention. It's highly unlikely any of the artists following their leader had that same star power, and even if they did, it was that much harder to shine being overshadowed by their mob's brightest light.
Like so many other squads, with the exception of Yams, the Yoda of the A$AP Mob, while other members of the mob have picked up some buzz, none have so far managed to truly command the spotlight on their own. Except A$AP Ferg. Improbably, Ferg is an even bigger personality than Rocky, it's just taken him a few years to be able to translate that manic energy into something musically coherent, and I've been along for the ride. Helen Keller could hear that "Work" banged, that "Shabba" banged, but it took some time, and some growth from Ferg, for a deeper current to run underneath the chaotic surface. You could hear it on "Lac Lac" with Big K.R.I.T., on "Talk It" off Ferg Forever, even on "Dope Walk." It was often ugly, sometimes intentionally so, but he was developing a scattershot-style in the lineage of O.D.B., switching accents, voices and flows line to line, song to song, verse to verse.
Ferg was beginning to perfect the rare art of making music that's simultaneously supremely strange and aggressively intimidating (see also, ScHoolboy Q) and the arrival of this new album, Always Strive and Prosper, feels like a crossroads. If he's going to ever stand shoulder to shoulder with Rocky, or even surpass him (a real possibility), this will be the album that sets that foundation.
In other words, this is worth a 1-Listen album review. As always, this will be a gut reaction listen for the first time, no pausing or rewinding, no editing. Just stream of consciousness reactions that try to capture the moment. We'll be back later with a follow-up review that attempts to break down the meaning and importance of the album once we've had time to marinate on it. For a deeper explanation of 1 Listen reviews, click here.
And with that, let's get to work...
And it begins. Beat can only be described as a creepy '50s horror movie, and now things are getting kind of Outkast-y with some strange beings speaking. Like Parliament Funkadelic if George Clinton rapped about pinky rings. He's making music for everyone who didn't make it out the trap like he did. Voice switches, monologues, anything can happen after an intro like this.
Right into a spoken word-esque intro from Crystal Caines, waiting for this beat to drop....nope, still waiting. Beat's doing that escalating claps thing that EDM DJs always do. And there's the bass, but it sounds like....shooting a laser beam off one of those super bouncy balls. This album's really going to test my music description skills it sounds so left field. Second verse, some storytelling, Mom was not pleased he wanted to become a rapper because Mom's are right. Rappers are the worst. This is the type of shit that's going to ring off at a festival but doesn't necessarily translate via headphones.
I'm all in on anything that involves the return of Missy. She could do a remix with Tyga and I'd listen to it, that's how much I love Missy. Ok, some real house-revival vibes, apparently I just accidentally turned on a flux capacitor and traveled back to the '90s. Did he really work in Ben & Jerrys? Goddamnit, there was a point in human existence when I could have purchased some Chunky Monkey from Ferg? And I missed it? This isn't quite hitting like I hoped, but again, might be a headphones issue. Three tracks in and this is an album to be listened to in large groups at maximum volume, not in your own head.
4. "Meet My Crazy Uncle (Skit)"
It's a skit. I assume that's his Uncle, who doesn't sound particularly crazy.
For a track called "Psycho" this has a pretty mellow vibe, almost souled out. We've already heard a staggering range of beats on this album. Ok, now here's the full range of his uncle's craziness, don't sleep on Ferg's storytelling abilities. Oh shit, and now there's a sax playing in the background, more nuance than he gets credit for. Great second verse describing how he wanted to follow his uncle to the darkside.
Ah, now the talking on the beginning of this makes sense, it's his Uncle Psycho. Nice album sequencing. Not the full on, outright, commit a felony banger you'd expect with a title like "Let It Bang" and a Q verse, but it has its own menace. I'm not saying I've drawn up intricate plans for how I'd rob a bank, but if I were going to plan a bank heist, I'd have "Let It Bang" playing on repeat. Oh yeah, Q's got his own crazy Uncle stories. Really, in a lot of ways Ferg and Q are east coast/west coast mirrors of each other.
Always thought it was a little fucked up that A$AP endorses Future's fake drug addiction when Yams died from a very real drug addiction, but whatever. Less intellectually, if you can listen to this and not at least consider sparking a riot, you might want to check your pulse. I'm pretty sure you're dead. I'm also pretty sure Future rhymes "woo woo" with "woo woo" here, god bless him. Again, Ferg's raps are actually far deeper than anyone who doesn't actually listen will likely ever realize.
8. "Yammy Gang" ft. ASAP Mob & Tatianna Paulino
There had to be at least one posse cut on the album, great opportunity to test my theory that Ferg's actually the most interesting personality in the entire Mob. Side note, this beat is lowkey crazy. Ooooohhhh....still haven't left Ferg's opening verse and this is my favorite track on the album so far. Rocky's verse is fine, and then honestly it all just kind of blends into a gumbo. Meh, I get why the whole Mob had to be on this conceptually, but I would have rather had just Ferg and Rocky. Closing words by Yam's mother, very powerful. This is a real family album.
9. "Swipe Life" ft. Rick Ross
I'm nervous to hear Rick Ross on this. This beat sounds like an angel who crash landed at Coachella and is tripping balls on MDMA, the kind of beat Ferg's made his bread and butter but The Bawse can't exactly luxuriate in. And....here's Ross. Verse is actually solid, but not feeling this as much. Looking ahead. This album's 18 tracks long, 14 tracks not counting the skits. If this one had ended up on the cutting room floor I wouldn't have been mad. I should probably also admit that I'm not 100% sure what swipe life means. Credit card scams?
10. "Uzi Gang" ft. Lil Uzi Vert & Marty Baller
True story, I once smoked the most weed I've ever smoked in my life with Marty Baller. It was enough to make me start seeing my own eyeballs, and apparently just a warm up for him. That's it. That's the entire story. Anyway....
Did they get Lil Uzi and then decide to title the song "Uzi Gang" or vice-versa? Even with Ferg's super high-pitched bars this is feeling like the most formulaic song on the album so far. Between this and "Swipe Life" it feels like we're in a bit of a lull. I already miss some of the adventurousness of "Psycho" - songs that should be bangers but somehow end up feeling a little dull are the worst because there's that extra "what could have been, should have been" factor.
11. "Beautiful People" ft. Chuck D & Mama Ferg
Chuck D is on an A$AP Ferg album. Just let than sink in for a moment. Chuck dropping jewels of some production that sounds like it's off a Marvin Gaye album (don't sue), this is great. Again, like Q, Ferg's music can be a real oxymoron in the best way possible. Crazy, this is more straight up "concious" than a lot of the "concious" rappers who probably look down on Ferg ever rap. Goddamn. It's not just impressive that this song exists, it's impressive that it exists on the same album as "Let it Bang." With song titles like "Strive" and "Beautiful People," Ferg's lowkey made an inspirational rap album. And his Mom's on the song - this truly is a family affair. (UPDATE: I've been told that "Mama Ferg" is actually his grandmother, not his mother.)
12. "Damn Not Again (Skit)"
Note to Self: We need to do a collection of Angry Voicemails From Girlfriends on Rap Albums.
13. "Let You Go"
Back to the real storytelling, he's trying to reconcile the man that a public rap life often makes him and his better intentions. Really interesting perspective. Hard to make songs about fucking groupies and then come home to a partner that you have to convince that the lyrics aren't real, just entertainment. Not necessarily the kind of song I'll personally come back to, but I can see how it could be really powerful for some.
If Ferg does want to make the leap from Mob member to legitimate solo star he could really use a radio crossover joint, and who do you call when you need a radio crossover joint? Big Sean. Not sure how well Ferg's singing works here, if this was going to be a big hit it needs more of a stand-out chorus. There's essentially no difference between the beat on the verses and the chorus. Again, not a song that I'm personally connecting to, but it's solid, easy to understand why it's here.
15. "Phone Call With Breezy (Skit)"
Essentially a shout out to Ferg's fashion designer roots.
16. "I Love You" ft. Chris Brown & Ty Dolla Sign
Speaking of crossover records, this is the full court press for radio spins. I'm not mad at it, but I'm not particularly interested in it, even though Ferg's No Limit soldier reference just made me laugh out loud. And now we get a rap verse from Brown with some Doritos punchlines, I'm checking out on this song like it's almost noon at a hotel. Ty really comes through with the old school Boyz II Men vibe on the end of the song, definitely it's most redeeming section, but this one's definitely getting skipped on future listens.
17. "Grandma (Skit)"
Another reference to his time serving ice cream. More talk about how his family, they're a constant presence on this album like no other album I can think of right now.
Oh shit, he's basically telling the story of A$AP signing to Polo Grounds. Ferg almost signed to Universal solo but decided to trust Rocky and move with him, I'd say overall history's proven that was the right choice. From Chance's "Sunday Candy" to this song this is a banner time for grandma songs in hip-hop. Really powerful lyrics, how his grandfather cheated on his grandmother when she was disabled. Hate to use terms like "under-rated" but I don't have time to think of a better term, so I'm going with "Ferg's pen game is very under-rated." Background vocals, now a trumpet in the background, some real musicality on this album. To Pimp a Butterfly's influence?
Generally speaking I like my Ferg as insane as possible, but this is often a surprisingly subdued album and one that really highlights his storytelling abilities and the larger mission driving his music - to reach back and help his family and those who grew up with him. I suspect this won't become an album that truly vaults Ferg to a new level, but it does establish him as a hip-hop voice that demands to be taken seriously. There's some filler, but on the whole this is an album I can play for those who doubt Ferg, and even if I can't manage to convince them, that's fine. I'll still be here, listening.