One of my fondest memories of growing up was watching the Los Angeles Lakers lose basketball games in the mid-2000s. Upon trading away Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers were the Icarus of the NBA; having flown too close to the sun with Shaq and Kobe Bryant, two of the most transcendent players of all-time who couldn’t get along, they crumbled in glorious fashion.
For the next few years, the Lakers thrived in mediocrity, putting together ragtag teams around Kobe in the prime of his career as the franchise became disparate within itself. Kobe was arguably the best player in the world and on the precipice of reaching his pinnacle, yet the team around him was constantly pulling him back into the purgatory of first-round playoff exits. The Lakers weren’t a team over this period. They were just a group of guys, interchangeable and unimportant, surrounding one important guy.
Why am I writing about those Lakers teams? It's the only thing I could think about when listening to A$AP Mob’s new Cozy Tapes Vol. 2, an incohesive album that attempts to go in too many different directions, falling apart and rebuilding itself so many times that it never gets into a groove. It’s an album that crumbles under its own weight and, as our own Brendan Varan wrote, has “too much going on without enough focus on the most important ingredients.”
A$AP Mob has always benefitted from the talent and notoriety of A$AP Rocky, the group's de facto leader. Rocky has always soared for something grander and more polished, from delivery and lyricism to an incredible ear for beats and sequencing. For proof, look no further than his solo albums, each displaying a competency and consistency that most A-list rappers strive for. Rocky has managed to blend consciousness and swagger so effortlessly that, from the jump, it's allowed for a significant separation from the rest of his A$AP compatriots in terms of quality music output. This is great for Rocky, but not so much for the rest of his crew.
A$AP Mob is a group, not unlike those Kobe-led Lakers teams, with one star player carrying his team on his shoulders in a fruitless and unwinnable war to be remembered. Even on the best tracks on Cozy Tapes Vol. 2 (“Frat Rules,” “What Happens,” “RAF”), the Mob only manages to hold our attention for long enough when Rocky is doing most of the legwork.
The best and most memorable rap groups, much like the finest championship teams in sports, the most revered TV shows and movies, and most successful businesses are the ones that avoid such a disparity within their ranks. We remember those rap groups, just like we remember the best teams, because they were composed of not only stars but of the guys placed around those stars willing to take their fair share of the load and steer the group in a coherent, meaningful direction.
The best rap groups made sure they had “glue guys,” if you will.
The “glue guy” is very rarely the best member of the group, but undoubtedly the most important. They function as the epicenter of the collective, centering the talents, personalities, and creative directions of the other members of the group. The best rap groups, like the best teams, are built for longevity over immediate success, and the role of the “glue guy” in hip-hop is to provide that consistency and longevity. Whether or not the collective changes sounds, styles, or even certain members, it is the essential role of the “glue guy” to create an unshakable foundation of quality. Their job is to amplify the group’s greatest strengths and minimize the damage of its weakest links. Think GZA for Wu-Tang Clan, Proof for D12, or even Domo Genesis for Odd Future.
The role of the “glue guy” is often defined early on in the collective’s existence, and there has been no better recent example of an astonishingly well-run rap group than BROCKHAMPTON. Just this year, BROCKHAMPTON has managed to capture the hearts and minds of rap fans through puncturing lyrics, sprawling sonic palettes, avant-garde visuals, and two full-length albums in the span of three months. More than that, BROCKHAMPTON has become an emerging force not just because of their daringness to challenge their listeners at every turn, but because at the core of all that chaos is a consistency created by their members with the most diverse skillsets, Ameer Vann and Dom McLennon.
Ameer Vann is the Andre Iguodola of BROCKHAMPTON. Iguodola’s job on the Golden State Warriors has always been to bring a calming presence to the team when it reaches its most frantic levels. He checks into the game, dominates the ball, slows the pace down, and pulls the team into a level of efficiency that has made them one of the scariest teams in the history of the NBA.
Whenever he blesses any number of BROCKHAMPTON tracks, Vann performs the same function. It feels odd to label a rapper as “calming” who also possesses the vitriol and pathos explored on verses such as “JUNKY,” but there’s a gravitational force to Vann’s style that rarely allows a BROCKHAMPTON song to float away into oblivion.
Vann, as well as McLennon, rarely feel like the stars of the group, as members Kevin Abstract and Matt Champion often arrive on tracks the same way Stone Cold Steve Austin used to run down the ramp at SummerSlam. Abstract, specifically, feels like a star in the making, but within the confines of BROCKHAMPTON, it matters that a force like Vann or McLennon can complement his more menacing verses with styles that increase their effectiveness, as opposed to leaving him on an island, creatively speaking.
The same goes for BROCKHAMPTON’s more unique members, such as Merlyn Wood and Russell “JOBA” Boring. Both Vann and McLennon can contrast Wood’s verse on “GOLD” or JOBA’s experimental flow on “TOYKO” with something more familiar, yet grounded. Each "glue guy" functions like Jerry on Seinfeld; complementing the most far-reaching creations around them with immaculate composure. Whether it’s Ameer’s baritone, lyrical haymakers, or McLennon’s double-time, OutKastian cadence, each serves as a reminder to BROCKHAMPTON’s fans that, while the group is pushing the boundaries of rap in several areas, there are still parts to the collective that keep it from internally combusting from its own progress.
It is often easiest to define the sometimes indescribable qualities of a “glue guy” by highlighting their absence from the equation, and this is where A$AP Mob remains a striking example. The essence of having such a member in a rap group isn’t just because of how they manage to bring the elements of the collective together initially, but also how they manage to maintain it. Cozy Tapes Vol. 1 felt much more promising than in its sequel in this sense, with members like A$AP Ferg and A$AP Twelvyy doing much of the groundwork in establishing a cohesive portrait of the members beyond Rocky.
On “Young N***a Living,” one of Vol. 1's standout tracks, the reins are handed over completely to Ferg, Twelvyy, and A$AP Nast, and as a result, listeners were able to appreciate three blue chip prospects, each painting their own surroundings vividly. It would be irresponsible to insinuate that A$AP Ferg wasn’t already a star in his own right, with multiple hit records under his belt, but songs like “Young N***a Living” proved that when it came to the group dynamic, he could show up and give A$AP Mob a nightly double-double.
The lack of proper "glue guys" leaves A$AP Mob with an increasing problem of quality control, one that finds their latest outing shifting between promising moments like “Perry Aye” and moments where you’re left wondering how, and why, Playboi Carti is stealing the show as a guest. When the spotlight was handed to Ferg, the group's second most-prominent face, only on “FYBR (First Year Bein Rich)” does it feel like the Mob’s Cosmo Kramer finally burst through the door with the flavor and magnetism we came to hear. When members like Nast and Twelvyy get their opportunities, the quality ranges from the soaring heights of Nast’s verse on “Feels So Good” to the most boring of valleys with Twelvyy’s “Coziest.”
No longer does it feel like the meat of A$AP Mob’s collective is on the verge of taking the group to new places artistically. Instead, Cozy Tapes Vol. 2, despite being blessed with incredible production, feels oddly like an eighth-seed team with no synergy or direction.
Right now, BROCKHAMPTON and A$AP Mob feel like two groups headed in opposing directions, and the presence, as well as the lack thereof, of “glue guys” means more than ever to their fate. While a group like BROCKHAMPTON feels destined for longevity because its most essential members have never been the most outspoken or flashiest, A$AP Mob has started to feel strikingly uneven and inconsistent. While both groups have individuals primed for their own successes, A$AP Mob captures the hardest part of maintaining group success in the way even a prominent member like A$AP Ferg struggles to remain consistent when placed within the confines of a group.
If history has taught us anything about rap collectives, it’s that most of the time they aren’t built to last because there was a flaw in the design from the beginning. The “glue guys” matter in a group's construction, as well as in its continued success, and when a group doesn’t have or can’t sustain those members, projects like The Firm, Cruel Summer, or Cozy Tapes Vol. 2 happen.
Any team can have one great player try to will them to victory, and still ultimately lose. The greatest of teams, however, understand that, in order for a player like Michael Jordan to win multiple championships, you need a Steve Kerr, a John Paxson and a Craig Hodges.