Sunday, April 24, 2016

album review: 'always strive and prosper' by a$ap ferg

Okay, way back when I was first starting this show in 2013, I took a crack at discussing A$AP Ferg's debut Trap Lord - and you don't have to tell me the review is pretty rough in retrospect. Putting aside that it was done before I had a proper camera, it was also a record that screamed style and flow over substance, which to me at the time didn't feel particularly cohesive against gothic-tinged trap production that initially felt too dark to fit with the content. Sure, I could appreciate the tracks where A$AP Ferg was indeed spitting, and his collaboration 'Lord' with most of Bone-Thugz-N-Harmony remains a highlight to this day, but for the most part it was a record that that was trying for a certain opulence and grandeur that I wasn't entirely convinced it could pull off, especially in the lyrics.

Granted, that was in 2013 - since then, we've seen so much hip-hop tilt towards material that's even more gothic and opulent, and at least A$AP Ferg could maintain a consistent flow on his own and not slather his vocals in autotune to drive the melody. And given that I did like his lead-off single 'New Level' with Future, I figured I'd give him another chance with Always Strive and Prosper. The one significant reservation I had was the larger-than-ever list of guest stars - A$AP Ferg can have an odd tendency to mimic the flows of his guest stars for better or worse, and given that I have pretty much zero expectations in finding a lyrical identity, that doesn't really help him stand out. But again, Future really was the worst part of 'New Level', and with a more impressive list of producers, I had reason to be it'd come together with at least some flair and style - was I right?

Oh boy... Let me start by saying that I have no idea how old fans of A$AP Ferg are going to receive this record, because while the signs were out there that he might pivot in this direction, I don't think anyone could have predicted Always Strive And Prosper. Part of that is because it's a total mess of a record across the board - and we'll get into how this isn't precisely a bad thing - but a larger part is that while I'm inclined to brand songs off this record sell-outs, it has too many weird turns as a whole to fall into that category. And as such it's an incredibly hit-and-miss record, with some great moments side by side with some of the most inexplicable rap songs I've heard thus far this year.

So let's start with the only remotely consistent element: A$AP Ferg himself. And I'm not going to deny that he can flow with a lot of energy and passion and with a very expressive tone. I might have issues with a lot of his content - we'll get to that - but he's always been one for style over substance and he does have style and flair, especially in terms of his description. And I'll admit I'm a little amazed by how earnest a lot of this record feels - you can tell his affection for his family and girl are legit, as is his desire to inspire people. However, this is also a record where he feels inclined to sing many of his own hooks or throw in more melodic elements, and it's really hit-and-miss how much of it lands, with by far the worst moment coming on 'Uzi Gang' where he contorts his voice into this high pitched squeal, not helping the lyrics where he describes giving the girl cunnilingus over the toilet.

And it's not helped when placed against his guest stars, most of whom show him up. Missy Elliott is the first and most obvious case on 'Strive' - she's just a far better fit against that production than A$AP Ferg is - but later Schoolboy Q delivers a killer verse on 'Let It Bang', A$AP Mob brought solid bars on 'Yammy Gang', even if it's a bit of a weird choice for an A$AP Yams tribute given the subject matter, and even though it's completely hollow Rick Ross sounded better than I expected on 'Swipe'. Granted, it probably wasn't the best idea for Ross to talk about being a drug kingpin on the same track he brags about meeting the President - or for Future to go off on another flexing verse on 'New Level' where he can't match Ferg's energy, or for Big Sean to go completely off topic on 'World Is Mine' and rant about girls, or for Chris Brown to rhyme 'ridiculous' with 'particular', even though I will say Brown's rapping is arguably better than it's ever been. Then there's 'Uzi Gang' featuring Lil Uzi Vert, and while his bars and flow are nothing to write home about, the larger issue is that right after an aggressive, violent trap banger, the tonal whiplash on the very next song 'Beautiful People', which starts with Chuck D speaking on #BlackLivesMatter, it's jarring as hell.

And this is where we have to get into content and the contradictions that frustrate me on this album. On the surface, A$AP Ferg's story of his comeup and success isn't entirely unique, but he injects enough detail to make it interesting, especially considering he doesn't shy away from the grime and nightmarish pictures. And if he wants to make aggressively violent trap bangers that don't really stay on topic or have any purpose outside the club, that's fine too. Where I take issue is when A$AP Ferg tries to be deep and inspirational, mostly because he's not really good at it. I don't get a sense of ideology or deeper thought or spirituality or anything anchoring Ferg's words, and by accentuating so much detail of the negative stereotypes he embraces wholeheartedly, it comes across as dangerously misguided. Take, for instance, 'Let It Go', a song where after a skit when his girl finds a condom wrapper on the floor, she vents about how his rapping about screwing around is demeaning and embarrassing to her. So A$AP Ferg spends the song trying to reassert his commitment and explain he's just talking about screwing around as inspiration for others. Okay, two points: one, not good inspiration for anyone; and two, that wasn't an apology for being caught cheating and it's not likely it's going to make his girl feel better when he keeps making those songs! And it gets worse on 'World Is Mine', because A$AP Ferg lays out his goal of being rich and successful and not being an underground spitter who might never make it big with content - in other words, feed into a system that rewards empty greed over actual content, which really makes his big inspirational message feel incredibly hollow. I appreciate the honesty and commitment to give back - which feels genuine - but it really rubs me the wrong way, how blatantly shallow it is.

Of course, if A$AP Ferg wants to be a pop star, the production on this record does more to position him in that lane than ever before. Gone is nearly all of the atmosphere and mood that made Trap Lord feel cohesive sonically - instead, we have a record that careens from style to style with jarring transitions and some godawful sequencing. And this starts early - the opening track 'Rebirth' starts with some elegance before bringing in an ugly, choppy synth line that feels clumsy as hell, which continues onto 'Hungry Ham'. And I go back and forth whether the sheer off-kilter nature of Skrillex's production fits the track, but no matter how good the drums might sound, that synth reminds me of a rubber ducky and the vocal overlays are garish and borderline cartoonish! And that's the frustrating thing: this album does have great drum production and occasionally some real elegance to it: I really dig the sax that creeps onto 'Psycho' and 'Grandma', I thought the live drums on 'I Love You' sounded great against the gentler backing synths, I liked that backing groove on 'Yammy Gang' with some of the strings and more minimalist beat, or the sheer eeriness of 'Let It Bang'. Hell, I stand by what I said about 'New Level' on Billboard BREAKDOWN, with the careening strings section and hints of horns and one of the cases where A$AP Ferg's vocal production gimmick - he layers just enough reverb to make his voice sound more cavernous and impressive - actually clicks. But for every good instrumental choice we get the incredibly shrill synth on 'Swipe' that feels lacking any body in the midrange, or the oily clunkiness of 'Uzi Gang', or the incredibly chipper hip-house beat on 'Strive' that even sounds too bright and poppy for Missy Elliott, let alone A$AP Ferg!

But in the end, is this record any good? Well, after a lot of listens... it's got some moments that work. I can appreciate earnestness and good flows and interesting description, but it doesn't assemble to any cohesion or deeper themes. And sure, you don't need that, but if you pitch away the atmosphere that sucked listeners in on Trap Lord for production choices that don't seem to make a lot of sense, even if you are hunting for radio play... it's a mess, it really is. And I legitimately have no idea if the fans are going to be on board with some of these choices, so while I'm giving it a strong 5/10, I don't know if I can recommend this for anything more than the spectacle. Then again, given that seems to be exactly what A$AP Ferg wants... well, mission accomplished, I guess.

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