Friday, May 29, 2015

album review: 'at. long. last. a$ap' by a$ap rocky

I have issues with A$AP Mob.

Let's put aside the fact that large tracts of their content has been fraught with wordplay that's nothing special and barely rises beyond ignorant luxury rap. Let's ignore that their usage of trap beats popularized the usage of dark, murky synth lines for this sort of hip-hop that were way more concerned with sounding menacing and were the furthest thing from fun or energetic. It was probably my biggest issue when I covered Trap Lord by A$AP Ferg way back in 2013, even though I have warmed a little to that album since. And let's move past the fact that in terms of their content, they aren't doing much different than the same luxury rap that's clogged up mainstream hip-hop for the past decade and a half.

Nope, I think my biggest issue with A$AP Mob is that, as a rap collective, they've underperformed in terms of actually dropping projects and I've frequently been underwhelmed by all of the hype placed behind the group. Hell, going back to A$AP Rocky's debut mixtape and album, I was frequently more interested in the atmosphere and more melodic, atmospheric production than A$AP Rocky himself, and his usage of pitch-shifted vocals to give his material more swell struck me more as a gimmick than anything. Yeah, I'm not going to deny he had a good flow and a fair amount of versatility, but his punchlines and introspection never really impressed me and his choice to surround himself with more interesting rappers like on tracks like '1Train' which contained a murderer's row of more distinctive MCs struck me as a poor choice. And sure, you can surround yourself with expensive brand names, but that doesn't give you a personality.

But whatever, it's a debut album, you typically expect the sophomore release to show more experimentation, and even though I'd argue the debut album didn't really define A$AP Rocky as a rapper beyond modest talent, he did look to be going for something a little weirder with his follow-up release, complete with a huge arsenal of distinctive producers and guest stars. Plus, with the death of his mentor A$AP Yams, we could be looking at a more personal affair with this - what did we get?

Well, I didn't expect a lot from this... and to be blunt, I didn't get a lot. Let's make this clear, I wanted to like this - for as much as A$AP Rocky has branded himself modern rap's unbridled hedonist, you can still get fun songs out of that. But the more I worked my way through this record, the more I realized I wasn't really having any fun. I'm not saying At.Long.Last.A$AP is a bad record - like Love.Live.A$AP, the production and atmosphere is good enough that when it can sustain that vibe, I can enjoy it in a blissed-out, relaxed mood, but this album goes over an hour and you eventually realize it can't really sustain that momentum, especially when you start digging into whatever meagre content is here. And with significantly weaker guest verses than previous records... no, this didn't really click with me.

So let's start with A$AP Rocky himself. One of the things I've noticed over his records is that while he does have a versatile flow, he tends to be a bit of a chameleon when it comes to his flows and style, following along with his guest stars' styles rather than develop his own unique personality, the biggest example of this being on 'Jukebox Joints' with Kanye West. To his credit he often does it well, and he's a good enough technical lyricist to structure his rhymes appropriately - although the number of rhyming words with themselves or completely flubbed bars do really push it for me. But the larger problem is that I have a hard time getting a handle on A$AP Rocky himself as a personality, considering how little I buy into tireless brand name bragging. It doesn't help matters that this album is a lot more languid and thus doesn't have the same intensity, and A$AP Rocky doesn't quite have Snoop Dogg's effortless, infectious charisma to make that work. 

Of course, the larger problem is that A$AP Rocky is a hedonistic asshole and he sure as hell doesn't make it look attractive, at least to me. Now there are plenty of rappers who are unrepentant dicks and I can normally tolerate it if the wordplay is strong enough like with Eminem, or if they have enough charisma or a sense of humour, like T.I., or even if they have a lot of energy or intensity, like Mystikal. A$AP Rocky barely has any of these on this record, and having to listen to him sneer at a ex on 'Fine Whine' with Future and completely waste M.I.A., or blatantly diss Rita Ora on 'Better Things' - I would tell him to take the high road in this case, but this is also a song where he talks about trying to make out with lesbians - is just intolerable. And then there's 'Jukebox Joints' where he says he's playing with women like 'sex dolls' - but then again, when you have songs like 'Electric Body', it's no surprise that he sees women as disposable objects. But to be fair, it's just a facet of his endless drug-addled debauchery and brand name celebration, which even he's getting annoyed with as he said on 'Back Home' - although I do find it hard to buy that A$AP Rocky is a purveyor of good taste given the unrepentant shallowness of his rhymes, and it didn't stop him from overloading his songs with luxury brands anyway. And since the latter does absolutely nothing for me, I'm left trying to find fragments of substance elsewhere, and I actually did find a few moments. The album opens with 'Holy Ghost', a pretty pointed indictment of mega-churches and the false hypocrisy there, and the imagery was evocative enough to make you wish A$AP Rocky actually had a point to make other than pointing a finger. And I actually really dug 'Pharsyde' for at least giving A$AP Rocky a bit of rationale for his hedonism, tied to underlying despair at having seen his world and his broken generation. But even despite that, and the self-awareness of his behavior on 'Everyday', there's not enough depth or commentary that redeems it or makes it feel compelling, because unchecked hedonism and nihilism gets pretty damn boring if it's done for its own sake.

So what about the guest stars? Well, in a nice change of pace, A$AP Rocky isn't overshadowed, but it's less because his material has improved so much as the majority of their bars blow. Future's verse is about as bad as usual as he continues his trend of taking bad potshots at Ciara, and while I actually thought UGK dropped solid enough verses on 'Wavybone', Juicy J continues to frustrate me with references that just feel so damn corny - seriously, that Trident references, that Snoopy line? Really? And Kanye's verse is terrible, but at this point I'm not surprised by Kanye dropping bad guest verses, although this one was bad for structural reasons, barely even trying to rhyme or form cohesive thoughts beyond mindless arrogance. The big disappointments for me were Mos Def and Schoolboy Q, the former just underwhelming and the latter taking A$AP Rocky's excuse to run the asshole behavior up to eleven with lines like 'whip the bitch like Ike / I could fuck your bitch off hype'. The one guest verse that did show promise was Lil Wayne's on 'M'$', but despite the solid flow and a few good lines, really was just more luxury rap bragging. As for guest singers... well, I liked the juxtaposition between Rod Stewart and Miguel on 'Everyday', probably one of the few hooks I dug on this record. The larger problem is that the majority of the hooks are handled by a no-name guitarist called Joe Fox, and his voice is often so thin and drowned out with reverb and effects and situated so far back in the mix that I rarely get a lot of impact.

But okay, let's be honest, nobody is listening to A$AP Rocky for content, they're going for the production and atmosphere and vibe, and there has definitely been a shift, with the interjection of more soulful samples and moodier vibes in comparison with the straight bangers of his last record. Now I'd argue that when you have such shallow content, pairing it with lethargic, overwrought presentation is the exact opposite direction I'd take, but he does get some hits here. For instance, the washed out guitar line of 'L$D' against the languid synth and minimalist percussion was pretty damn potent, probably one of my favourite songs on the album. Hell, one of the things I've always liked about A$AP Rocky is that he rarely ever compromises a melodic backdrop, like the guitar and bells on 'Holy Ghost', the gleaming elegance of 'Excuse Me' with the twinkling pianos and echoing percussion over the chorus, the stripped back guitar  of 'Pharsyde' with the strings and hi-hats, the smooth soulful horns on 'Wavybone', the great organ backdrop of 'Everyday', or the crushing trap bombast of 'M'$' that I liked even despite those pitch-shifted shouts. Hell, to A$AP Rocky's credit, he marginalized most of the pitch-shifted, chopped n' screwed elements I couldn't stand on his last record, and when he brought it for nearly all of 'Fine Whine', he at least made the choice to pick some solid drums that single-handedly save that song. Of course, there are slipups - 'Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2' has that siren-like synth squeal that I just couldn't stand, the guitar tone on 'West Side Highway' was a runny mess, and the horns Kanye chose on the back half of 'Jukebox Joints' were so tinny and thin that they completely killed my enjoyment of the soulful sample. Granted, they effectively came out of nowhere, which ties into the transitions on this record - namely, that they feel like some of the clumsiest shifts I've heard in a while, which does nothing for the flow of these tracks and the album as a whole, especially when it comes to the atmosphere. I get trying to add variety, but when you consider how bloated this album and there are still instrumental ideas that feel undercooked, you've got problems.

So in other words, the more I've listened through At.Long.Last.A$AP, the more it frustrates me. Yes, A$AP Rocky is improving as a technical MC, but his punchlines still don't impress me and his lyrical content is a mess of hedonistic nothings and half-formed ideas. And none of it has the depth to merit a lack of solid hooks, driving presence, hard-hitting bars, or any sort of instrumental tightness. If it wants me to just turn off my brain and vibe, too much of the instrumentation feels too melancholy, disjointed, and lacking in impact, but if it wants me to actually engage with it intellectually, A$AP Rocky and his guests barely give me anything to work with. And for an album that runs over an hour, that's inexcuseable. For me, I'm thinking a 5/10 and only a recommendation if you're a hardcore fan of A$AP Mob or you can vibe with this material more. But in a year where Ludacris brought back charisma, a great flow, and a sense of real fun to his shallow, more commercial material on Ludaversal, there's no excuse for this. In other words, for the most part, I'm skipping this.

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