Supposing we lived in an alternate universe where artists were publicly traded like stocks on Wall Street, I would have rushed to put my money in A$AP Rocky the moment I heard “Peso.” Instantly intrigued by the ethereal quality of the song’s opening notes, I was ultimately won over by the borderline absurd levels of confidence he displayed across the song’s opening stanza. “I be that pretty motherfucker, Harlem’s what I’m repping,” Rocky begins his verse, marking his introduction to the mainstream in 2011 with a word that, at the time, many rap fans would have seen as connoting vulnerability. Listening to Rocky make this bold declaration, however, there is absolutely no trace of hesitation in his voice. He calls himself “pretty” the way a seasoned cardiologist calls himself a “doctor,” not as a way to boast about their professional status, but as a trivial matter of fact, verified by an official accrediting board and years of experience.
With this singular, idiosyncratic word choice, Rocky makes it clear that he’s not bragging as a means to overcompensate for some hidden flaw or latent insecurity, he’s simply doing so because he’s comfortable in his own skin. The lyric suggests a level of self-assuredness that I envy to this day.
Interestingly, this particular lyric is actually a refrain that Rocky repeats many times over the course of LIVE.LOVE.A$AP, his debut mixtape and, to date, still his most acclaimed and influential body of work. Reviews for the project were near-universal in their praise for the artist's ear for production, the magnetic nature of his delivery, and his regionally agnostic approach to making music more broadly. Listening back to the tape now, all of these assessments are still valid, but the latter of the three is where Rocky’s influence on the culture is most noticeable.
At the turn of the decade—when people still spoke without irony about things like “bringing New York rap back”—Rocky created one of the best projects the city had seen in years by saying “Fuck it” and wearing his Houston influence on his sleeve. In leading this charge, he managed to prove just how antiquated and reductive it was to pigeonhole rappers to their geographical location, giving them the license to experiment with the parameters of their music, and ultimately re-popularizing the timeless sound of DJ Screw along the way.
For as much as the mixtape was celebrated by the critical community, however, the other main takeaway that kept resurfacing was that the actual music, when divorced from its clear aesthetic appeal, was underscored by a noticeable lack of substance. Reviewers criticized Rocky in the same breath as they complimented him, using words like “charm,” “charisma,” and “attitude” to talk about how he used his innately likable temperament to cover up for his limited range of interesting or unique subject matter. The overwhelming consensus was that the Harlem native was full of considerable potential and destined for a bright career in music. True greatness was potentially in his cards as well, but to reach these particular heights, he’d have to find a way to address this one lingering problem that had weighed down his otherwise triumphant debut.
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Fast forward nearly seven years to the present date, and it’s a bit disappointing to note that the same sentiment reviewers had expressed about Rocky’s music in 2011 could easily still apply to his music today. Having released just two full-length LPs in this time—both of them roughly comparable in quality to his initial mixtape—the sample size of his output is still small enough for us to talk ourselves into believing he has something more to offer.
Across his two full-length LPs, LONG.LIVE.A$AP and AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, there are certainly moments where the rapper seems to be making the leap into rap’s upper class, just as we’d initially hoped he might back in 2011. Consider, for example, the standout track “Suddenly” from A$AP’s first full-length LP. Employing intricate flows and descriptive lyrics to document the surreal aspects of his rapid ascendance from poverty to fame, Rocky absolutely floats over one of the most inspired productions in recent memory. “Roaches on the wall, roaches on the dresser / Everybody had roaches but our roaches ain't respect us,” he spits, using vivid imagery to momentarily recall the work of some of his more focused peers.
Similarly, on album highlight “Max B” from his follow-up, Rocky lucidly breaks from the mold of his typically superficial lyricism to lament the prison industrial complex, rapping, “Uncle Tom, please don't make my sentence long / Granted what I did was wrong / Pigs don't show remorse if you admit it all / Missing Ma, hope that she don't miss the call / Admitted that she'll never visit, like the hard-headed never listen, Lord.”
Unfortunately, these albums had their fair share of missteps, too. On LONG.LIVE.A$AP, for example, Rocky’s obvious attempts to craft a crossover hit led to the release of uninspired, albeit successful cuts like “Fuckin’ Problems” and “Wild for the Night.” Similarly, AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP was home to several failed forays into psychedelic experimentation that bogged down an already overstuffed album with self-indulgent tangents. Even still, there was much to like across these albums, even amongst the transparent commercial pandering and the messy clutter, respectively. Par for the course, A$AP’s curatorial ear and overflowing charisma allowed him to coast on his laurels. As rap critic Jeff Weiss wrote succinctly in a review for Pitchfork: “Rocky embodies the sweat-free cool of someone who has stolen the test and memorized the answers ahead of time." As long as this happens to be the case, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the parts of his music are always greater than their cumulative sums.
On the precipice of the release of Rocky’s third album, Testing, it’s worth asking ourselves whether this is indeed the case. Anticipation for an A$AP Rocky album has never been lower, as his last album did not resonate culturally the way he intended it to, and his output in the years since, limited to guest features and A$AP Mob posse cuts, has been so sporadic that he’s failed to meet the public halfway in their requirement for constant content. Worsening matters, the album’s rollout has been mismanaged, with shoddy, experimental demos being released in place of promotional singles, failing to elicit significant public excitement. Without substantial preceding hype leading up the release, Flacko needs his music to do the talking more so than he has in several years.
Notably, it seems as if A$AP Rocky is aware of this fact, speaking to Complex in a recent cover story about seeking to prove that he’s “one of the defining artists of his generation.” Of course, it may be unfair to expect him to become the second coming of Kendrick Lamar overnight—particularly when he’s never shown any real inclination of wanting to be this type of artist—but, I do think that a concerted attempt to prioritize substance (as well as style) is the only way for him to take this final leap forward. It’s only fair, given that all the artists he cites as peers are forced to reconcile both. Granted, we don’t ask Migos to sharpen their lyrical focus, but that’s because they make three million songs a year; we’re not concerned with whether Rae Sremmurd’s music is devoid of substance, but that’s because they make undeniable hits. In the case of A$AP Rocky, however, he evidently wants to be seen as an auteur, which means that his music needs to have cultural impact that extends beyond market saturation or airplay. It needs to have meaning.
Examining the guest features listed on the tracklist for Testing, I’m optimistic that this is going to be the album where Rocky finally breaks through this invisible barrier. In my experience as a listener, an artist doesn't make an album with FKA Twigs, Frank Ocean, and Dev Hynes unless they have something to say. Against my better instincts, I’m buying speculative stock in A$AP Rocky again.