Monday, August 19, 2013

album review: 'trap lord' by a$ap ferg

Here's something you might not know: the term 'trap' often heard in rap and electronica is significantly different than you might think.

You see, in electronica and dubstep, 'trap' tended to refer to a specific type of instrumentation, complete with accelerating 808 drums, an excess of hi-hats, menacing string sections, and moody, darker layers of synthesizers. Now I'll admit right out of the gate that I'm not the biggest fan of this particular musical style, but I can definitely see its appeal, particularly when balanced out with the right lyrics. After all, cold, bleak minimalism can work if you have a performer with enough charisma or force of personality to back it up (which is rare enough in its own right, keep that in mind). 

Unfortunately, the definition of trap instrumentation is very different than what is typically considered 'trap' lyrics, which uses the term much more literally as a reference to the trapped lifestyles that many rappers struggled to escape, the traps created thanks to poverty, societal inequalities, or other such factors. And to be fair, the places where trap instrumentation and trap lyrics are balanced out can lead to some compelling symmetry within the song. Granted, it won't be much of my thing - to me, too much trap music goes for bombast over grit, which loses some texture - but I can appreciate it when it works.

The problem though, as one could easily say if looking at the Billboard Hot 100, is that this symmetry between trap instrumentation and lyrics rarely gets popular in a big way on the charts. Instead, many producers and rappers have co-opted the trap aesthetic and instrumentation to build their conventional rap songs about money, cars, and hos - and believe me, for often than not it doesn't work at all. This is actually for a fairly simple reason, believe it or not: it's hard to glamorize a lifestyle as attractive to the mainstream audience if you pair it with production and instrumentation that is bleak, dark, and makes it seem like the artist isn't having any fun. It makes the songs come across as astoundingly soulless to me, and often far darker than I suspect the artist intended. And sure, it'd be one thing if the rappers were looking to satirize their lives of partying and paint them as hollow or token, but it's clear that more often than not, they're entirely sincere.

And this isn't me coming down against vapid hip-hop either - when placed in the right context, superficial themes in hip-hop (or indeed any genre of music) can work just fine. Hell, this is all coming from the guy who'll defend crunk more than the majority of critics. As I've mentioned before, there's a place for shallow, hedonistic material, and while it might be indulgent, vacuous, or dumb as hell, it can occasionally be rather entertaining nonetheless (basically my general defense for most hair metal). The problem here doesn't come from the luxury raps, but the placement of said raps against a dour, humourless instrumentation that sucks away the possibilities of fun or awesome bombast.

So with all of that in mind, what could I hope to expect from A$AP Ferg, whose debut album is titled Trap Lord (very much analogous to T.I.'s Trap Muzik from 2003)? I've heard reasonable things about the guy from the underground, but I know exactly how much pressure to conform with the mainstream has ruined all too many rappers who had underground street cred. And while I wasn't intimately familiar with his mixtapes, I was a little encouraged that he somehow managed to dredge out Bone Thugs-n-Harmony from wherever they were and pull them onto the album. It couldn't be that bad, right?

Ugh. Well, while I wouldn't call A$AP Ferg's Trap Lord the worst album that I've listened through this year at all, it definitely has flaws in all the places I expected - although to be fair to the guy, it's a improvement over his performance on the A$AP Mob mixtape Lords Never Worry and does showcase points where A$AP Ferg might indeed develop into a decent rapper in the future. But as of this album...

Okay, I need to get this out of the way quickly before I go through the rest of the review: A$AP Ferg is not a good lyricist. In fact, I'd argue he alternates between being pretty bland to pretty embarrassing. This isn't referring to his flow, mind you - in fact, I'd make the argument that his biggest improvements since the mixtape have been in his technical rhyming skills - but his lyrics leave a lot to be desired. Because, honestly, if you're making a bunch of puns off of your name that Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas already made back in 2006 (and which were lame then), you're not doing yourself any favours. And look, I get that there's a certain shallowness to be expected as part of this genre, but at least he could have taken his lyrics in interesting directions or not just repeated the same junk we've heard time and time again for years now! The one point I'll give in A$AP Ferg's favour is that he occasionally pulls out some African American-centric pop culture references that I genuinely didn't recognize, and it added some flavour to his material. On top of that he repeated references church and gospel themes, which isn't entirely unique but does have a certain degree of symmetry when compared with his instrumentation, which occasionally works a lot better than it should.

This is mostly because A$AP Ferg's instrumentation is entirely 'trap', with strong hints of more gothic elements. Now as a fan of gothic music in general, I can kind of appreciate this, and I do like that his lyrics at least go far enough to mostly fit with the tone. And even though it did catch me off-guard at first, I did warm to the use of echo smothering his backing vocals, as I found it did a fair bit for the atmosphere of the track. But this breaks apart at a few points, the biggest being the quality of the instrumentation and production is lousy. There's no baroque scope or epic sweep or anything remotely close to impactful, and the lack of richer instrumentation makes the backbeats come across as more than a little cheap. And when balanced out against A$AP Ferg spitting as hard and fast as he can, the instrumentation is distinctly underwhelming. And that's when he's actually trying - more often than not, the beats sound like the same preprocessed trap music we've been treated to for the past year, and none of it fits well with the 'money cash hos' anthems that A$AP Ferg is trying to sell. 

Now I'll say this in his favour: while I'm not the biggest fan of his higher range (which sounds disturbingly like David Banner), I do respect the fact that A$AP Ferg is rhyming a little faster and spitting with some intensity. And while I have a really hard time buying any emotional authenticity from his lower, more 'soulful' range, I can give him credit for at least attempting to fit the mood constructed by his instrumentation. But in either range, I have a hard time distinguishing much of a personality surrounding A$AP Ferg besides the stereotypical cliches. And really, his guest stars don't really help him, because on every track they show up, I get the feeling that A$AP Ferg is attempting to sound like them instead of build his own personality. Sure, it's better for the track's flow, but this is his debut where he's supposed to show what he is to the world, not copy a succession of rappers for better or worse.

That being said, I did quite like the track 'Lords' (one of the best songs on the album), featuring Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and I'll admit it's impressive trying to see A$AP Ferg spit up to their level (he still can't quite cut it, but then again, very few actually can). But on the flip side we get songs like 'Work (Remix)' and 'Murda Someone', which feature acts like Waka Flocka Flame and French Montana, neither of whom you really want to emulate, because they're terrible rappers. But even on his solo tracks, I find A$AP Ferg lacking in lyrical presence to really stand out for me. People have occasionally called him a 'young 50 Cent', and I'm not sure I quite buy that - A$AP Ferg might have better flow than 50 Cent, but significantly less creativity. 

And yet I see elements that could allow A$AP Ferg to stand out a bit more, if he had bothered to flesh out the ideas. Take the whole gospel/religion element he repeatedly cites - if he had bothered to push on that subject, have a little more focus, he could have made songs like 'Hood Pope' have real impact. But instead he opts to undercut these themes with the traditional 'money cash hos' chorus or verses, and I don't buy that he's doing it ironically to make a point. The one place A$AP Ferg does go the extra mile is on 'Cocaine Castle', which dives straight into crack house addiction with fearless abandon, complete with samples of women sobbing and chilling instrumentation. It's definitely unsettling, but it's the most real track on the album and it shows that A$AP Ferg does have potential to be better.

But outside of 'Cocaine Castle' and 'Lords', I really can't recommend this album. Look, if you like trap music or trap lyricism, there are more interesting acts than A$AP Ferg. He mentioned in an interview that this album was originally intended as a mixtape, and I buy that: it certainly has that lack of polish and amateurish production you might find on the edges of the scene. But even by that standard, it's far from good.

A$AP Ferg, you might the second member of A$AP Mob to get a full debut, but this isn't a great start. 

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