A$AP Rocky violated rule number one of the 10 Crack Commandments: Never let no one know how much dough you hold. The cheddar bred $3,000,000 worth of jealously after the 23-year old New York rapper disclosed the value of his deal with Sony/RCA last month. The offer was tendered largely off the strength of his first two videos, "Purple Swag" and "Peso", a pair of codeine fever dreams that recast Harlem World as a slick-talking color-corrected suburb of Houston.
To cool-hunting 360-wielding record executives, the videos might as well have been advertisements for the A$AP lifestyle: Colt 45, purple weed and purple drank, dice games, bike riding, brandishing Berettas, clothing designers ostensibly known only to Kanye, and a pretty blonde girl in a grill mouthing the phrase: "this is for my niggas getting high on the regular." Picture an episode of "Gossip Girl" where Blake Lively watches Traffic and subsequently opts to explore the Danger Zone of 125th and Lennox.
Unavoidable in the conversation is the enduring absence of a New York commercial force under 30. Since the emergence of Dipset and G-Unit in the first half of the last decade, NYC rap aspirants have largely fallen into four categories: ringtone wunderkinds ("This Is Why I'm Hot", "Chicken Noodle Soup"), technically skilled personality voids (Papoose, Saigon), artful traditionalists (Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Ka), and Maino.
By contrast, Rocky was telegenic and chanting swag. His lead singles poured syrup-slow Houston ride music atop the malt liquor melodies of Harlem's Max B. What Rocky lacked in lyricism, he made up for in narcotic charisma. Seeking street-cred, Drake announced plans to take Rocky on tour. Seeking swag-cred, Lloyd Banks and Jim Jones hopped on tracks with him. Hype metastasizes fastest in New York, and it's easy to conflate the need for a standard bearer with the desire for a savior. Rocky was the chosen one. Hence, $3,000,000.
Commence the hating. Odd Future's Hodgy Beats called him "A$AP Copy." Old heads looked askance at his appropriation of styles alien to the five boroughs. Blogs painted it as the worst New York investment since the Yankees gave Brien Taylor $1.55 million. Rocky didn't help matters when he allegedly punched out a soundman at the Fader Fort and announced that he and his whole crew had adopted vegetarianism. Thus, every mention of his debut mixtape,LIVELOVEA$AP has pondered whether it justifies the price tag of a Bugatti and several dozen ivory backscratchers. Good isn't enough. People expect Rakim Mayers to be the second coming of his namesake.
Of course, the odds are slanted in your favor when you're a rapper named Rakim. You can't exactly sell life insurance. And throughout LIVELOVEA$AP, Rocky embodies the sweat-free cool of someone who has stolen the test and memorized the answers ahead of time. It sidesteps the usual pitfalls of the heavily anticipated debut; there are no ill-fitting famous rapper cameos or last-cup leftovers from $10,000-a-beat producers. Rocky makes no cornball radio plays, nor any awkward attempts to prove his depth. Even on "Demons", the record's most emotionally raw track, Rocky is preternaturally self-assured. He's got stomach pains but dreams with the inevitable triumphalism of someone who can convince RCA/Polo Grounds to hand over their Pitbull blood money. After about a minute of complaining, he's back to "fucking the chick you're next to." By rough estimate, Rocky fucks about 13 or 14 different girlfriends in the course of the album's 56 minutes. There are two different mentions of Naughty by Nature's "O.P.P.". He is nothing if not efficient.
That's the thing. It's pretty easy to point out the pitfalls of LIVELOVEA$AP. Thematic and lyrical concerns are basically limited to Rocky being a pretty motherfucker, repping Harlem, doing drugs, and getting more women than James Worthy in Houston. Rocky raps effortlessly, switching back and forth between Midwestern double-time to something that resembles Wiz Khalifa auditioning for Byrd Gang. The dark, drugged visions of Memphis rap also creep in throughout. But to his credit, he doesn't waste much time persecuting haters, preemptively striking only once on "Leaf": "They say I sound like André/ Mixed with Kanye/ A little bit of Max/ A little bit of Wiz/ A little bit of that/ A little bit of this/ Get off my dick."
It's more difficult to point out where exactly Rocky excels. He's a good rapper, but he's notKendrick Lamar. He's melodic, but he's not a walking hook like 50 Cent. His voice is strong but not completely singular. Instead, Rocky has great instincts: the moment when he abruptly switches to his Bone Thugs-N-Harmony flow for a few bars in "Trilla", the bizarre song structure of "Bass", where he just repeats "Bass" in lieu of a hook; the last minute and a half of "Demons", where his scrambled lo-fi refrain fades into the chlorine fog of the Clams Casinobeat.
If anything LIVELOVEA$AP is a triumph of immaculate taste. Rocky's ear for beats is worthy of Rick Ross or early Game. Courtesy of Clams Casino, Burn One, Beautiful Lou, A$AP Ty Beats, and SpaceGhostpurrp, the stellar production makes this something like a swag-rap generation The Documentary. He cherry-picks from the best of internet micro-trends-- taking celestial based weirdness, the funk of country rap, the stoned pace of screw, and the tape-warp of Memphis. But at the core is the French-braided, gold-toothed kid from money-making Manhattan, inflecting his songs with hints of third-generation Spanish Harlem and West Indian patois. For someone who brags, "the only thing bigger than my ego is my mirror," Rocky wisely cedes the spotlight to well-chosen guests, including Oakland's Main Attrakionz, Houstoner Fat Tony, and the larcenous intensity of L.A.'s Schoolboy Q. Meanwhile his A$AP crew shows few signs of being there for reasons of nepotism or weed carrying.
"Houston Old Head" might be the best sign that Rocky can deliver on his seven-figure potential. It's not necessarily the most memorable song, but it's his most surprising-- a swaggering lean-sipping version of Neil Young's "Old Man", with it's chorus, "If you listen when your old head talk/ You'll be straight." It's basically the opposite of Odd Future's youth worship-- the admission that occasionally your elders can put you up on game. It shows he's willing to listen and soak up different styles and sounds-- crucial elements for evolution. Even if the fusion initially seems unorthodox, LIVELOVEA$AP is exactly the sort of record you'd expect to hear in 2011 from a New Yorker who was 13 when "Big Pimpin'" came out. Rocky did what should've been expected of him; he made a very good record. Now we wait to see if he'll get clientele.