I want to believe A$AP Rocky.
He has always been one to talk a good game, exuding bulletproof confidence and overabundance of self-assurance. It’s almost uncanny for an artist to carry themselves without ever showing any cracks of uncertainty; never appearing as if they’re folding under the pressure of crippling doubt. In interviews leading up to the release of his third studio album, TESTING, Rocky is convincing as ever that this album will be a trendsetter for the ages.
In retrospect, this was the same energy that surrounded his sophomore release, AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, an album that isn’t bad but wasn’t nearly as exciting as what Rocky advocated. This is the nature of marketing, to create attention and cause anxious anticipation, but there’s a wall every artist will continue to collide with when the promotion is more enticing than what’s being promoted. Rocky has all the pretty words to make each new release interesting enough to try, but pretty words are for Hallmark cards, not albums.
What’s frustrating is knowing that Rocky has been everything he’s ever boasted, and yet it’s been seven years since the magical LIVE.LOVE.A$AP and the mixtape remains the crown jewel of his discography. With so much promise and potential, I would hate to believe A$AP Rocky peaked early.
As Hershal, fellow DJBooth scribe, wrote yesterday: TESTING is A$AP Rocky's chance to finally prove he is a defining artist of his generation. On a smaller scale, TESTING is Rocky’s opportunity to deliver art that’s as interesting as the way he describes it to be.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules here are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Let the show begin.
1. "Distorted Records"
Bass. Distorted bass. Scratches. This is ominous. I like the feeling of not knowing what’s coming. Rocky! He came in underneath heavy distortion. Sounding like riot music. I’m into this. A bar about all the lil rappers being his offspring. Having his Gucci “All My Children” moment. I love how the production surrounds him like it was tailored for this verse. Not a huge fan of the rhymes, but I can get behind the beat and vibe. It’s thoughtful. I’m here for it.
2. "A$AP Forever" ft. Moby, T.I. & Kid Cudi
T.I.! He’s just talking. I'm slipping back to when he narrated Travis Scott’s Rodeo. Big Phil shoutout. Yams shoutout. I’ve always had a soft spot for this song. I hope Rocky’s dynamic taste for production is heard throughout the project. There’s a lot of floating background vocals. Loving that texture. Cudi hums! I forgot how much I enjoy Cudder’s voice. Without being the best rapper he always had raps pleasant to the ear. He’s floating. He sounds so much older than the Moon Man the world was introduced to 10 years ago. Most graceful hum in hip-hop. Wishing Rocky had more energy but I’m still pulled in. These gentle keys. Is that Moby? The second half is very majestic. It goes on for 30 seconds too long, but I like.
3. "Tony Tone"
Slowed down vocals. What sample is that? [Editor's Note: Roger Webb's "Man Inside."] This sounds supernatural. That horn! Now, this is the energy, Rocky! He’s hopscotching across this beat. Literally skipping in the pocket. I fully endorse this first verse. A woman's voice. She’s criticizing Rocky. There’s a lot of subtle layers being added to these songs to give them character. Verse two reminds me of something Kanye would rap in 2017. The way he confronts criticism with boasts on boasts. Just when he was about to lose me the vocals switched up. I wish he had more to say because I would be more engaged if the rhymes were as grabbing as all these little nuances. Everything is ear-grabbing but the lyrics.
4. “F**k Sleep” ft. FKA twigs
Another supernatural beat. Slowed. Grimey. Feels like the Swamp Thing exiting the swamp to terrorize the world. Twigs! Ah, that was a pump fake. The beat is stripped down. Very minimal. Rocky’s flow is very relaxed. OH SHIT! I love the drums. Subtle, but hitting. I don’t think Rocky knows he sounds like he sleepwalked into the booth. He reminds me of a car that needs a jump. Someone give Rocky a jump! Everything is so alive but his voice! Wake UP. His natural cool is slowly becoming too cool. Twigs sounds like an Egyptian queen casting an enchantment. She has such a spellbinding presence. I just melted. Completely evaporated.
5. “Praise the Lord (Da Shine)" ft. Skepta
What wind instrument is that? I’m not sure but I’m rocking. Drums are heavy. Bass is heavy. I’m bouncing. Rocky is sounding like a rapper who cares again and I’m happy. I’ve liked portions of every song, but each one has come with just as many gripes. So far I have none, yet. Not the best hook. Too simplistic. Skepta! Eh, I was hoping for something more. A performance on par with his More Life feature. He chose such an odd flow. Rocky's up for his second time at bat. Loved Rocky’s first verse but once we reach the hook the song value just continues to lessen. I really wish the hook was something less elementary.
6. “Calldrops” ft. Kodak Black
Oh! What was that sample? Acoustic guitar. The song began sounding like some vintage Three 6 Mafia and suddenly transitions into John Mayer playing the guitar in his garden. This song is playing with my emotions. There are sounds and samples popping up at random. It’s fascinating and bizarre. Rocky is singing. He is putting more effort into singing than some of the raps. I’m not in love. Some very cool ideas are being attempted. There’s a collect call coming from Florida. Kodak Black is rapping over the phone. My heart breaks. I know Kodak has made some bad decision but a young, black man incarcerated is always going to lay very heavy on my soul. He sounds so much like a child. Man, that was a wild way of ending a record. I’ll be playing “Calldrops” again.
7. “Buck Shots”
Man, Kodak’s verse really stabbed me. Oh shit! This is warrior music. Fight club music. First time I heard a Fortnite bar in a rap song hahaha. I’m assuming this very quiet voice belongs to Smooky MarGielaa. He sounds like a studio mouse who wanted to contribute a verse. I read that Carti is featured, and this sounds like something he would kill. Wait, MarGielaa has opened his mouth and is now dancing. This is cool. I don’t think I heard Carti... unless he only did background vocals.
8. “Gunz N Butter” ft. Juicy J
He starts the verse so low. I’m a bit bored, Rocky. I love the Juicy J ad-libs. Okay, he’s finally coming to life. This is so far his best performance of the album. Risks are being taken. I’m glad to see he’s trying things, but I’m baffled by some of these choices. The switches are sudden and having vocals stacked above his own are causing a serious clash. WOO! The vintage Project Pat interpolation sounds so well-placed. Hector? Someone is talking. I can’t lie, I don’t understand this song but when it’s good, it's good. He keeps layering what I think is a Juicy J verse over his own. It sounds ridiculous but I can’t stop nodding my head.
9. “Brotha Man” ft. French Montana
I love the soulfulness. Feels very Marvin Gaye-esque. Very What’s Going On. These keys. Rocky with the vocal pitch. Eh. He’s losing me with the verse, again, but I’m still here. THE BEAT IS IT! EVERYTHING. Imagery galore. Rocky providing some substance. Bruh, the Onika flat line! Sounded like Frank Ocean appeared to rap that one bar and vanished. Now that’s a bar. Second verse Rakim. I’m so frustrated by the amount of good and bad that continues to clash with these songs. The duality is one that I don’t need. Didn’t need the last few bars, Rock. We really didn’t. Gotta learn to end songs on a high note.
10. "OG Beeper"
“Posted on the corner like a trapper.” Okay, okay. This is the trap I want to hear from Rocky. This beat is funky! The switch up! Reminiscing Rocky is bringing me so much joy. Is that BlocBoy doing ad-libs? Whoever it is has been killing the background vocals. Why is this song so good! Yes! If Rocky takes the inspiration he used to make this record and expanded it through an entire body of work I’d never ask him for another song. On first listen one of the best Rocky records I’ve heard since “Brand New Guy.” Favorite song on the album.
11. “Kids Turned Out Fine”
I’m rejuvenated. I hope the album ends strong. Singing Rocky. He has a pleasant enough voice to pull this off. I’ve enjoyed the experimentation with vocal pitching without going for the traditional DJ Screw slow he’s known for. Back to rapping over the acoustic guitar. Beat switch. Interesting concept. Talking about the kids and their vices. I like the message, that even with their habits the kids turned out fine like the parents before them. Sorta sounds like some campfire song that they would sing at a progressive summer school.
12. “Hun43rd” ft. Dev Hynes
Lets see if TESTING can find a groove. Thug Life sample. Nice, nice. Loving the usage of samples at the beginning of his records. I wonder how much this album cost to make? Rocky jumped like how Thor arrived to Wakanda to fight Thanos. Loving the energy. The lo-fi production fits him like a glove. Blood Orange killed the beat. I need Dev to give Rocky 10 of these. Getting flashes of vintage A$AP. Dev Hynes! I hope more rappers are going to tap him, because his voice is stellar. Sample came back in. Low-pitched raps. I’m into this song far more than I expected when it started. Another strong record. The back half is three for three. “Ball nigga, ball.”
Three more songs. I hope we get three home runs. “Changes” is off to a promising start. The vocals. Is that Rocky or a sample? Whoever it is, he sounds like an angel singing underneath a waterfall. Rocky’s interest in acoustic sounds is interesting. The lightness fits him well. His singing has a nice texture, it’s not strong, but there’s presence. He’s borrowing the André spoken word flow from “International Players Anthem.” I’m here for all of this. “Changes” has Rocky in his bag. The rap, flow, and production transformation is all hitting the bullseye. Loving the beat switch. It’s very soulful. The pussy popping/Iggy Pop bar was so unnecessary but also the juxtaposition that’s been long overdue. Back to the acoustic guitar and confessional spoken word raps. I’m enjoying the openness. I can see glimpses of growth, and the growing pains A$AP Rocky is going through to elevate his music. He’s trying. I see the effort, and at best, I hear the results.
14. “Black Tux, White Collar”
Ah. This is the Clams Casino record. I’m loving the buildup. Very minimal. Nice drop. Rocky is charged up. He’s putting on a figure eight performance. The beat is feather light. I like how Rocky is able to use such an open space but it feels like there’s a lot of ideas and not enough focus. It’s a solid song. With some fine-tuning, this could’ve been something special.
15. “Purity” ft. Frank Ocean
I’m excited for this one for all the obvious reasons. Low-pitched raps. Rocky has been busy, and I feel him. Is that Frank singing the hook? That amount of soul hasn’t come from Rocky all album. Rap Ocean! Can he be considered a candidate for greatest rapper alive? This is an incredible verse. The imagery in these lines. The references. The flow. Frank Ocean isn’t in his bag, the boy has been folded into luggage. “Fired the label like fuck brands.” Go off, sir. He came and took over Rocky’s album. Nah. Rocky has to give this track to Frank. Give him all the pennies that will come from my one million streams. Rapping Rocky. Reclaim your album, sir. This is good. What a way to end. Some personal lyrics about his sister and niece. I’m here for it.
Testing (first listen) final thoughts:
A$AP Rocky has ideas. The lack of inventive thought isn’t an issue he suffers from. The problem with ideas is that they won’t all be good, and TESTING is an album full of ideas that fluctuate constantly from good to bad. There’s no middle ground; every risk taken is big enough to amplify or disrupt the entire record.
Making music full of intricate nuances can be valuable, especially with the production, but each miss only brings down the merit of his hits. When rap is repetitive the culture moans; Rocky is a case of an attempt to escape musical clichés but instead overwhelms with peculiar alternatives. This is why the album has more enjoyable moments than it has enjoyable songs.
"What was Rocky trying to accomplish?" is a question I found myself wondering throughout TESTING. The amount of time poured into the album’s musical aesthetic is an effort that isn’t put into Rocky’s rapping performance. At times he sounds as if he’s reading lyrics that don’t excite him. The charisma is there, but that’s no supplement for enthusiasm. It’s like taking a 5-Hour Energy as a supplement for sleeping—you'll be able to function but you’ll feel like a zombie while doing so.
Rocky makes attempts at being more open throughout the project, and those moments are some of the album’s highs, but overall TESTING displays how much Rocky loves the art of music and his struggle to be a compelling rapper.
When the late, great A$AP Yams passed, I thought about Diddy and how much he contributed to what made Biggie’s albums the classics that they are. Biggie is unquestionably an impeccable MC, but it takes more than having an exceptional way with words to create a great album. Puffy provided the instrumental guidance that gave light to seeds of greatness so they could blossom. I think Yams was that guide for Rocky. I think with all his vision, Rocky has to discover new guidance, or find a way of self-edit his vision.
It takes more than a vision to create visionary art, the same way it takes execution for an idea to end up a good one. What TESTING has in imagination, it lacks in cognizance.
By Yoh, aka YohG Beeper aka @Yoh31.