A$AP Rocky is, per GQ and the universe at large, the “world’s flyest human.” A decade in the making, Rocky’s path to most fly saw a major stride five years ago with the release of his debut album, LONG.LIVE.A$AP.
Back in 2013, Rocky was twenty-four years old and just entering the commercial record space with the now-classic mixtapeLIVE.LOVE.A$AP two years behind him. 2011’s LIVE.LOVE took what Lil B started and went a step further, giving cloud rap a definitive body, texture, and enticing form. While music fans and critics remain obsessed with the death of things—genre, style, lyricism, and so on—A$AP Rocky’s debut breathed new life into Harlem, into hip-hop, and changed the direction of hip-hop culture as we knew it.
Rocky's seemingly unexpected influences were an immediate draw. The novelty of his sound, a blend of NYC boom bap and syrupy Houston sensibilities, is as much a product of the present as it is a product of history. The internet allows for an infinite scope of influences, which is partly why Rocky’s production choices, vocal pitching, and flow make him as ardent a follower of DJ Screw as Bone Thugs and Dipset.
Production from Hit-Boy, Clams Casino, and Rocky himself, among others, found LONG.LIVE.A$AP doubling down on Southern influence as much as the album doubled down on Rocky’s smooth flow and pretty-boy status. With that, purists and naysayers took LONG.LIVE.A$AP as a chance to discredit Rocky as an emcee. But there’s the irony: everything that initially put off the East Coast elite allowed his debut studio album to age like fine wine.
A$AP Rocky’s delivery will never get old because it’s imbued with swagger and confidence. Pair that with vocal interpolations reminiscent of DJ Screw’s “My Mind Went Blank,” and you have the record’s lead single, “Goldie.” With a breezy flute line, braggadocious lyrics, and punchlines that would make Big L nervous, “Goldie” was A$AP Rocky in his pocket. He’s as East Coast as he isn’t, still a potent combination to this day.
Rocky’s flow, a series of skittering triplets, still dominates the airwaves. The vocal pitching we’ve been familiar with since his breakout single, “Peso,” will follow hip-hop into its next three lives. While Rocky is far from the only rapper to deploy these tactics, his style and flair elevate him above copycat contemporaries and indistinguishable peers.
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Even still, the damning question bubbles up and lingers: How can you be East Coast and still owe your style to the likes of Three 6 Mafia? But the question is the answer. Rocky is a Harlem rapper through and through in part because of his Southern influences. Where the art boom that is the Harlem Renaissance was a byproduct of the first wave of the Great Migration—where millions of Black Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North—A$AP Rocky is the Harlem Renaissance reimagined in hip-hop's arena.
Not only was this borrowing and innovation a refreshing change-up to a New York rap scene growing uninspired, but Rocky’s region-hopping also made his music the perfect space for collaboration. Standouts from every coast and region could meet on a Rocky track and deliver some of the stickiest lines in hip-hop, a la Danny Brown’s hilarious “Bitch pussy smell like a penguin.”
LONG.LIVE.A$AP is home to two of the most heralded—and at the very least, most debated—posse cuts of the past decade (“1 Train,” “Fucking Problems”). At the same time, the ScHoolboy Q feature on “PMW (All I Really Need)” continues its reign as a top five Q feature. My heart skips a beat when I hear “It’s A$AP Q, where the bread at?” and so does yours.
LONG.LIVE.A$AP was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rocky had star power, and he knew it. On tracks like “Fashion Killa,” Rocky was speaking his icon status into existence. More importantly, the musical and business moves Rocky made during and after this album transformed into the bridge between the rap-like-J. Cole-generation and the newest school of rappers. His emphasis on style and aesthetic, along with his taste for abrasive and radical soundscapes, not only refined his status as a premier tastemaker but served as a blueprint for the new wave of ‘Lil’ rappers.
With everything that Rocky has accomplished since his debut album, and in spite of a lackluster sophomore record and a now-lengthy hiatus of solo material since its release, the question becomes: “What should we expect now?” His third album is around the corner, and while Rocky claims the album is going to be experimental, what we’re really looking for is the same confidence that fueled his rise from blog darling to global star.
I’ll never doubt Rocky’s ability to push the boundaries of hip-hop or to produce a soundscape akin to a drug-fueled trip with him as a guide, but what I am hoping for is a drop of maturity. These past five years have taught us everything we need to know about A$AP Rocky the icon, but will this be the record that firmly answers, “Who is A$AP Rocky the man?” I hope so.
“Everything changed before my eyes by my surprise,” a much greener Rocky says, signing off LONG.LIVE.A$AP. Five years later, Rocky has come to embody the definition of hip-hop: he is a mogul, a fashion icon, a sound pioneer, and a true spitter.