On Everybody

Featured

Logic Everybody AfricaryanLogic is no storyteller. The Maryland rapper has professed his love for Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan and favors lush, expansive soundscapes, but his cinematic ambitions are diminished by his vlogger perspective. Everybody, his third studio album is a feat of narrow vision. Covering race relations and identity and metaphysics, the album aims big but is utterly unrewarding, a dull haze of half-baked ideas and muddled intent.

Centered around an encounter between a deity, played by astrophysicist and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson, and a mortal named Atom following his death in a car accident, Everybody follows Atom as he is endlessly reincarnated, slowly becoming everybody across the span of human history. It’s a trippy conceit but Logic fails to ever develop it. His verses attempt to ping between perspectives, but his characters are indistinguishable blurs, always inevitably folding back into Logic’s own underdeveloped story. This slippage could have illustrated the album’s themes of reincarnation and collective unity, but its shoddy execution reveals the limits of Logic’s vision.

Simply put, Logic doesn’t have an eye for detail. His verses are pure information dumps, full of declarations and claims but rarely narratives. “I’m a dirty motherfucker, a waste of life, a waste of skin,” he says on “Confess,” summarizing a story he never told. “Television tellin’ my vision to get greedier!” he says on “Most Definitely,” citing the entire medium rather than a specific channel. When he does attempt a narrative, settings and scenarios are announced rather than evoked. “Imagine this child growing up and seeing the craziest shit, being apart of the craziest shit,” he says without elaboration on “Take It Back.” Imagine if he actually told that story. The Incredible True Story, Logic’s last album, lacked a compelling plot, but it at least didn’t confuse stage directions with action.

This album’s working title, “AfricAryaN” (a nod toward his biracial heritage), was discarded in the wake of a public backlash, but the original title’s hollow provocation is built into the album’s core. Logic frequently uses his mixed heritage to reject extremism, but he doesn’t even seem to grasp the difference between identity and prejudice. On “Everybody” he oscillates between questioning the idea of white privilege, rejecting racial identity outright, and claiming he contains the blood of slaves and masters. His confusion is forgivable, but it’s jarring that he resolves it by declaring everyone equal as if that were ever the question, as if his own discomfort encompasses the entirety of the issue.  On “Take it Back” his heritage becomes the key to transcending identity, another unsolicited solution. “He always saw things from two sides. He always knew that the message that everybody was born equal regardless of race, religion, creed, and sexual orientation, he knew that because he saw that,” he says in blank verse, referring to himself. This is Logic’s idea of racial harmony: a black man whitesplaining equality.

Logic’s rapping is just as tortured, full of empty flow shifts and whiffed punchlines. “Street’s disciple, my rap’s a trifle/I shoot slurs from my brain just like Cobain,” he raps on “America.” “I wish I had motivation to get money/My rainy day would be sunny if I had a vision of currency falling above from the sky,” he raps on “Killing Spree.” Logic has never been an evocative rapper, but what he’s lacked in imagery he’s typically made up for with earnestness. Here he frequents a choppy stutter flow that mimics a record scratch. It’s stylish, but the sense of tedium does Logic little justice, especially when he gets outclassed by Black Thought and Chuck D on “America,” rappers capable of rapping well and emoting, not just one at a time. And this tedium is even more punishing if you’re a listener who’s familiar with the corners from which Logic sources all his parts: “America” is a schlocky imitation of Kanye’s “Fade” (it even has a Post Malone impression); “Most Definitely” lacks the assured breeziness of Mos Def’s “Umi Says;” “Killing Spree” bites Jay Rock’s “Vice City” but isn’t as infectiously seedy.

Ultimately, it’s just not clear what Logic is trying to do. Is he having an identity crisis? Is he affirming his identity? Is he having a crisis of faith? What is the nature of his faith? Is he upset about Spider-Man: Homecoming? You’d think these questions could be addressed in 71 minutes and 13 songs (many of them 6+ minutes) but Everybody is Logic’s least focused album yet. Instead of surveying human history, Logic vaguely explores his own anxieties, stargazing into the mirror. The beats are gorgeous and the ambition is clear, but what was supposed to be an album about everybody ended up being another album about Logic. And it doesn’t even tell his own story very well. Reincarnation is cruel.

Recent Writing

I haven’t written here lately, but I have been writing elsewhere.

I wrote about triple-washed salad.

I wrote about smiling while black.

I wrote about paranoia in 2016 rap.

I reviewed Physics of Blackness.

I reviewed Coloring Book, untitled, unmastered, 99¢, and The Heart Speaks in Whispers.

There’s a few more things scheduled for the future, but I’ve got to say, I’m pretty thankful for the opportunities I’ve had so far. I always want to write more, and I know that I will write more, regardless of whether it’s here or at an outlet, but I’m always appreciative of being published outside of my own bubble. It’s not something that should be seen as validation because lots of poorly written and poorly developed stuff gets published at top places every second. It’s just personally satisfying to weather the harrowing timeline of pitching, researching, writing, and editing, and seeing an idea finally materialize on the other side. Plus, [good] editors are a treasure!

In other news, I have a novel that I’m trying to get published. Fingers crossed!

Thanks for reading.

On The Life of Pablo

The Life of Pablo cover art Kanye West
Kanye has always been obsessed with contrast. His best work draws its power from strong polarities, whether inherent or situational: gospel‘s piety paired with rap’s sacrilege, reverence of college alongside the pride of finding success without a degree, gripping soul music distorted into cartoonish whining, true romance with a porn star, niggas in Paris. Kanye is intrigued by the beauty and ugliness of unthinkable unions and strives to show why these opposites attract his attention.


The most fundamental contrast of Kanye’s career has been his career itself. “When did I become A-List? I wasn’t even on a list,” he raps on “No More Parties in LA.” Somehow, a producer-turned-backpack rapper became one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. And he did it on his terms: plastering teddy bears onto his album covers, accosting presidents, declaring himself a deity, all while being black. It’s been quite a journey.  

Around the time he recorded and released Yeezus, Kanye’s journey was encountering some major obstructions. Nike wasn’t supporting his foray into shoe design, the fashion world wasn’t supporting his venture into clothing design, and tabloids were vigorously documenting his designs on Kim Kardashian. Yeezus vocalized these antagonisms, harshly, and sometimes movingly, but it didn’t solve them. In 2015, finding himself further entrenched in these multiple skirmishes, on Vic Mensa’s “U Mad” Kanye rapped, “I think they finally got me where they want me at,” and he seemed to mean it. The Life of Pablo expands that sense of confinement into a battle royale against all of the people and forces that he sees as preventing him from ascending to further heights. Where previous albums largely confronted ideas,  The Life of Pablo is deeply personal, confronting specific people and experiences.

This approach often comes across as deeply petty. Women have always had limited roles in Kanye’s music, but on The Life of Pablo, the limits are grating. The first verse of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” begins in pornographic detail: “Now if I fuck this model/And she just bleached her asshole/ And I get bleach on my t-shirt/I’m a feel like an asshole.” He goes on to describe the woman as someone he met in Tribeca, vaguely humanizing her by mentioning that she knows how to get under his skin.

“Famous” features him crassly insulting Taylor Swift, his perpetual frenemy. And on “FML” he alludes to an argument with another woman that took place at a Giuseppe store in Mexico, boasting “I’mma have the last laugh in dee end, cause I’m from a tribe called “Check-a-ho,” the stupidest and most insensitive line of his entire career, including his tweets. While Nike gets a weirdly fun takedown on “Facts” and Kanye deconstructs himself on “I Love Kanye,” the fact that women receive the bulk of Kanye’s ire is hard to miss. Kanye’s never been above punching down and it’s never been easy to stomach, but this time around it feels like he’s reaching, actively seeking to cause harm rather than just elevate himself.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are striking moments of intimacy and vulnerability. Album opener “Ultralight Beam” is a beautifully earnest appeal to the heavens, Kanye desperately prostrate before his god. Bowing his head, he asks for deliverance, his voice unfiltered, pleading. The composition is exuberant: thumping percussion, a slow, droning organ, the loneliest little trumpet, an ascendant choir. Kanye has always taken cues from gospel ( “Jesus Walks,” “Dark Fantasy,” “Good Friday”) but this is the first time he’s fully given in, allowing his seemingly bottomless faith to take the wheel. Although Chance the Rapper steals the show, the song still belongs to Kanye, channeling his unique worries, his particular need for salvation.

Family seems to worry Kanye the most. “I’m a deadbeat cousin,” he admits on “Real Friends,” chastising himself for forgetting birthdays and openly hating family reunions. “I got my own junior on the way, dog, plus I already got one kid” he declares later, his verse ending abruptly as if he’s just then fathoming the gravity of being a family man. Toward the end of the song he condemns another deadbeat cousin who once stole his laptop and held it for ransom, but Kanye’s still guilty: he’d been using the laptop to cheat.

“Wolves” is equally as condemning. Kanye starts the song by positioning himself on a precipice, using his dead mother to shame himself. “If mama knew now/ How you turned out, you too wild/ You too wild,” he chides, his auto-tuned voice surrounded by a shrill howl and sickly, bottom-scraping bass. At some points his words become completely garbled, a literal loss for words, his shame too deep. In the context of the album, it’s clear that infidelity is the cause of his shame, but there’s also a sense of visceral dissatisfaction with who he’s become in general, with the position he’s placed in his family in. The song ends with Kanye proposing an alternative history of the meeting of Mary and Joseph, one in which their first encounter foreshadows impending doom instead of joy.

The specter of Christianity looms over the album, but to call this gospel would be a stretch. Though Kanye yearns for redemption and salvation, he seems to be most ecstatic when he’s recalling or detailing wicked, roiling sex. “Freestyle 4” is a dark carnal romp, Kanye at his most base, dick out, ready to fuck, whether on a dinner table or in the middle of a Vogue party. Although the title of the album references Paul of Tarsus (Pablo is Paul in Spanish), Kanye has more in common with Augustine of Hippo, the saint who was a profligate before he was a priest. The Life of Pablo doesn’t quite show Kanye on the road to Damascus. It’s more an account of his guilt-ridden escapades at some brothels in Jericho. This is Kanye’s blues record.

Despite being the centerpiece of the album, in many ways this supposed schism between Kanye’s Christian leanings and his love of sin just doesn’t work. Throughout the album Kanye tries to strike this contrast, but in a world with Spotlight and Creflo Dollar and Donald Trump, situational contradiction by itself isn’t compelling, especially when Kanye doesn’t explore the texture of the contradictions.

Much of the production is richly textured, but the bulk of the songs feel incomplete and hurried. “30 Hours” should be the album’s closer, but its melancholy groove peters out with Kanye practicing potential flows and answering a phone call. “This a bonus track,” he offers, apologetically. “Feedback” is driven by a warped siren that crashes between bloated troughs of acid house bass, but it haphazardly lacerates the ear, striking wildly instead of tactically, like a perpetually pissy housecat. Album-closer “Fade ”is just as incomplete, its various samples swirling around in the beaker, but never quite forming a solution. It’s easy to interpret this mad whorl of unfinished thoughts and ideas and beats as some kind of stroke of genius, but I think the more empirical response is to just admit that the album’s sloppy. And that’s not a dismissal or an invalidation of Kanye’s art or ideas. It’s just an acknowledgment that the radiating-light-beam hotness of a hot mess doesn’t resolve the mess.

On “I Love Kanye,” Kanye’s acapella take on his origin story and his polite dismissal of it, Kanye raps “I miss the old Kanye.” The song is deeply self-deprecating, but it’s also Kanye displaying his core strengths: self-awareness, openness, refinement. Kanye’s anger and refusal to smile all while having the time of his life (i.e. so-called “new” Kanye) have always been subversive, but ultimately contrast relies on the power of juxtaposition, the spectacular waves emitted when poles collide.

The collisions on The Life of Pablo just aren’t as productive as they’ve been in the past; the impacts are predictable, the trajectories are worn. The Life of Pablo is too deluged in the ghosts of Kanye’s past: his ego, his narrative, his expectations of himself. It’s Robert De Niro in the mirror at the end of Raging Bull. And that’s okay. The man who brought us Barry Bonds has to walk sometimes, whether with Jesus or with his latest not-so-secret lover or through his own ailing mind. But that doesn’t mean his run is over. Waves actually do die, but their energy never fades.

On The Incredible True Story

Logic The Incredible True Story

According to rap fans, the only thing better than a classic album is a timeless album. If classic albums are albums that survive, outliving their contemporaries through tenacity and continued relevance, timeless albums are albums that transcend life itself, escaping mortality and ascending to a plane of eternal existence. Timeless albums don’t live or die: they are. Maryland rapper Logic has been aiming for timelessness ever since he christened himself “Young Sinatra.” On The Incredible True Story he finally achieves timelessness, but that isn’t a compliment.

The album is framed as a sci-fi adventure in which two space travelers, voiced by Steve Blum and Kevin Randolph, travel to a potentially habitable planet called Paradise. Raised in a space colony, the two travelers have no memory of Earth, which has been destroyed: they are so far removed from it that the sky is simply a concept to them. The only contact they have with Earth is The Catalog, a collection of music and other media that keeps them connected to their lost roots despite only 5 million humans being left in the universe. Logic’s music is apart of that catalog and the two travelers spend their journey listening to him. He is literally the soundtrack to humanity’s salvation.

This grandiose self-mythologizing isn’t supported by the music. Although Logic has graduated from the generic earnestness of his previous work, he’s still plagued by his inability to evoke compelling imagery. Throughout the album he alludes to the anxieties and difficulties in his life and career, but these references are barely even sketches. On “Never Been” he speaks of becoming more mature and knowledgeable and struggling every day, but these reflections don’t seem to be tethered to any concrete experience. His verses are just strings of aphorisms, unearned righteousness masquerading as maturation.

This lack of imagery wouldn’t be a problem if Logic was more emotionally flexible or at least more imaginative, but he is frequently neither. Though the album is framed – conceptually and sonically – as a space adventure and it even features Steve Blum, the voice behind one of sci-fi’s best series about space (Cowboy Bebop), Logic never quite digs into the metaphorical potential of his theme. Not only is the “incredible story” completely uneventful (they literally just fly to a planet: there are no computer system malfunctions, crashes, comets, evil computers, pit stops, supernovas, etc.), but Logic himself sticks to incredibly straightforward lyrics. “I’m on an interstellar mission” he raps on “Innermission.” “In a spaceship, I’m in another system” he raps on “Fade Away.”

Part of the reason Logic seems to be limited in his lyricism is his overwhelming emphasis on flow. Though he no longer actively cloys to be respected as a lyricist – i.e., he’s eased up on the corny punchlines – the showiness of his flow shows that he still yearns for that recognition. He frequently raps at high speeds for no apparent reason, bludgeoning tracks with a grating cadence that is on beat but often has no engagement with the instrumentals. On “Fade Away” he blitzes through cheerful synths, warm hums, and clicking percussion. On “Stainless” he blazes through a symphonic sample and snappy snares. There’s nothing wrong with rapping fast, but Logic uses his flow bluntly rather than nimbly, clobbering through songs rather than waltzing.

There are a few moments where Logic does appear to be more tactical with his flow. “City of Stars” features him trying out auto-tune and patiently crooning over a slow-burning, crinkling beat. As he declares the end of a wearying love, you can feel the warmth in his voice, the lingering hurt despite his chest-thumping dismissal. “This ain’t a love song,” he insists, convincing himself more than his former lover. “I Am the Greatest” also features a deviation from his typical over-flowing, but it’s a road that’s already been paved. Logic sounds exactly like Drake circa 2015 on this track, his slow and strained delivery sounding more imitative than indignant.

In the end, “The Incredible True Story” shows Logic’s vision of hip-hop to be thoroughly, exhaustingly simple. For him, hip-hop is just rapping: flair, technique, finesse, drama, tension, and even passion are afterthoughts, excesses. Despite regularly citing and imitating his pantheon of idols – Drake, A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac, Quentin Tarantino – Logic consistently comes across as another deluded stargazer mistaking an orbit for a trajectory. If Logic can’t expand his narrow vision on an album that is literally about traversing the cosmos, he likely has little else to offer. ”The Incredible True Story” is a timeless album through and through: unvarying, static, stable. It can endure for eons because it makes no effort do anything more.

On Da Reality Show

Young Dro Da Reality Show

Despite being at the epicenter of rap for well over a decade, and both launching and enduring major changes in the genre, the narrative of Atlanta hasn’t changed. In the collective mind, Atlanta is a land of constant succession, a place where artists build brands not legacies, where the moment an artist can afford a coupe is the same moment that artist is dethroned by a coup. In Atlanta, rappers are hitmakers, nothing else, the myth goes.

While this myth has some merit (e.g., Freak Nasty, Youngbloodz, K.P. & Envyi, Yung Joc), it is often more prescriptive than descriptive, resulting in Atlanta artists being filed away just because the myth and its believers prefer a pre-packaged narrative to messy facts. Some of these artists accept the myth, strategically cashing in and then cashing out once the spotlight recedes. Other artists retreat to their original bases, the streets, and churn out mixtapes ad infinitum until that mythmaking spotlight finally shines on them again. Young Dro is one of the latter kinds of artists, but even within that group he’s in the minority.

Da Reality Show, Young Dro’s third studio album, isn’t an event album, a swaggering red carpet catwalk like Ma$e’s Welcome Back. For Dro, this album is just his latest project. “Round 3,” Dro mechanically announces before his brief verse on “Black History,” unenthused. This album isn’t a glorious return to the ring because Dro never left. His gloves are still laced, his arms are still taut, and Grand Hustle is still in his corner.

Of course, longevity isn’t stasis. There have certainly been some major changes to Dro’s style since 2006. Dro’s famous swag talk is much more punctuated. His verses and songs are shorter and punchier and his cartoonish obsessions with Polo and multi-color cars have been dialed back in exchange for menacing lines about crime and vice. On “Dead,” a sluggish track that creeps along on stilts of scratchy percussion and muted keys, Dro runs through the pricing for contract killings: “I sell knees for 20/Ankles for 30/Wrists for 25/and 50 for the whole nigga, fuck it I’mma kill him.” This kind of gutter talk has always lurked in Dro’s music, but it hits harder in the absence of references to M&Ms and Tropicana.

When Dro actually does opt for swag talk, he tends to let the instrumentals do the heavy lifting. “We In Da City,” the album’s lead single, features Dro squeezing himself in between airy synths and a lively organ like cheese passing through a grater. Likewise, “Ugh” features in-the-pocket verses surrounded by a lush instrumental courtesy of Zaytoven that flutters between a chirping flute and crashing bass. The result is “Maybach music” as spoken by the Maybach itself instead of the rapper, swagger being evoked rather than insisted upon.

There are moments where Dro is a bit too insistent. The album tends to falter when Dro becomes overly sentimental. The last 3 tracks of the brief album (12 songs, 36 minutes) are cloyingly confessional, clumsily attempting to resolve Dro’s flirtations with crime and vice like a reality show settling an episode-long conflict in a two-minute scene before the credits.

But even as Young Dro aims for resolution, his own stubbornness holds him back. “Feeling Myself” is Dro’s version of “T.I. vs T.I.P.” (the song, not the album), an internal war between career-minded rapper and inveterate knucklehead dopeboy. While T.I. chose compromise, Dro firmly chooses to be a dopeboy, his final verse ending with a boast: “I’m realer than fucking real/ The hoodest nigga on BET, still.”

This choice to remain in the streets, in obscurity, likely won’t land Dro back “on MTV with Green Day,” as he boasted on “Gangsta” from Best Thang Smokin’. But this is probably a good thing. While the bird’s-eye-view of Atlanta rap continues to focus on emerging stars, Dro can flourish in the periphery, busting the myth of Atlanta, one album, one mixtape, one ongoing career at a time. 

On Summertime ’06 

Vince Staples Summertime 06

From samples, to interpolations, to autobiographical lyrics, the past is an integral part of how hip-hop is made. When it comes to the main narratives in hip-hop, the stories rappers tell about themselves, this ingrained relationship with the past has often resulted in tales of redemption: Kendrick Lamar escapes the “m.a.a.d.” city, Biggie gets a Sega Genesis, Ice Cube finally has a good day. On his debut double album Summertime ‘06, Vince Staples doesn’t find redemption. For him the past isn’t a distant memory, a road he can finally drive down after a long, tiring walk. Vince Staples sees the past as the horizon of his future, a roundabout in which he can change lanes but never exit.

Though Summertime ‘06 is timestamped by its title, Staples freely weaves in and out of his past and present. On “Lift Me Up” he’s performing for legions of fickle white fans in Paris; on “Norf Norf” he’s lamenting that Long Beach has never seen any of Obama’s mythical “change”; on “Hang ’N Bang” he’s on the corner Crippin’. These leaps through time can be jarring, but Vince’s inconsistency isn’t the result of sloppiness. When it comes to setting the scene, Vince isn’t concerned with concrete details like what music he was bumping or the clothes he was rocking in 2006. He’s more concerned with mood. Summertime ‘06 isn’t a time period; it’s a perspective, an angle for processing the world.

Vince’s perspective is unapologetically dense. The album begins with “Ramona Park Legend Pt 1,” which features the sounds of a beach: waves crashing on the shore, seagulls yelping in the sky, stillness all around. A bluesy wail briefly trickles in the background, but moments later it’s greeted by menacing percussion, circling in the water like a shark. But even the shark isn’t the real menace. The song ends with an oblique gunshot, the true apex predator. This isn’t any beach. It’s Long Beach, the “end of the land with the surf and the sand,” as Vince tersely describes it on “Jump off the Roof.” Vince sees Long Beach in stark detail, recognizing and repping both the symbolic beauty and destruction of a beach, the calm waters and the threatening waves.

This mixture of beauty and danger and pride permeates the album. Staples regularly shouts out his old haunts – Ramona Park, Poppy Street, Artesia Boulevard, 65th Street – freely admitting that he’s done dirt on all of them. These are the places where he was made, places where he’s witnessed and facilitated death and ruin. But Vince doesn’t want to be forgiven, to be seen as having made it. “Fuck gangsta rap,” he snarkily says on “Norf Norf.”

He seems to mean it. “Dopeman,” a hazy song driven by droning synths, doesn’t make drug dealing sound particularly fun. Expert murmurer Kilo Kish chants “I don’t need a gun just to melt a nigga brain/ When I pull up to the slums with a quarter key of ‘caine.” Staples barks out a brief and manic verse, stretching out his words as if his brain too has been altered by the drugs he’s dealing. Even “Street Punks” a threatening song about credibility, puts a damper on gang life. “You ain’t ever caught a body/Know it cause you talkin’ bout it,” Staples coldly raps, more as a warning than a boast.

Amidst the stone-faced shooting and selling dope, Vince spends a lot of time contemplating love. “Lemme Know,” a breezy song that features Jhene Aiko, radiates  lust. On it, Aiko and Staples wear their desire on their sleeve, coyly purring out three dual verses together. But though they address each other as lovers, their words are full of taunts and warnings, imminent danger. On “Loca,” the love is just as palpable, but the danger is more explicit, with Vince quickly moving from seduction to demanding loyalty. “Would your courtroom lie for a nigga?” he asks his new lover with utter seriousness. As much as he contemplates and feels love, Vince refuses to detach it from his day-to-day life in the streets.

For “Summertime” Vince goes solo, crooning in autotune about a love he deeply wants but doubts is possible. The song is hard to listen to. The autotune sharpens Vince’s voice rather than smoothing it, making his typically nasally delivery gravelly. But that seems to be the point. Even when Vince is fully immersed in his emotions, his skin is still hardened by the Crip-blue waters of Long Beach.

Not everything on Summertime ‘06 works well. “Might Be Wrong,” which features singing from James Fauntleroy and a spoken word verse from Haneef Talib, who delivers his verse from prison, has its heart in the right place but it doesn’t quite fit. Its melodramatic synths and Fauntleroy’s singing are a bit too straightforward for the complex, dense atmosphere that producers No I.D., DJ Dahi, and Clams Casino have carefully curated throughout the album. The bluesy track “C.N.B” also stands out. Vince runs through a laundry list of politicized topics – gentrification, victimization, cultural appropriation – but nothing gets fully washed. Some topics demand more than a perspective.

That said, Vince Staples’ perspective is frequently fresh. Avoiding the moral high ground, he freely roams the seedy lowlands, making unflattering observations about himself, his home, and the world that made them both without resorting to soul-cleansing self-flagellation (like Kendrick Lamar) or lung-collapsing chest thumping. It’s not always an easy listen – Vince seems to enjoy street life as much as he abhors it, gleefully loading his gun just as often as he mourns his friends who have taken bullets. This moral ambiguity results in hip-hop that probably won’t please the activists or the sociologists or the Rap Geniuses, but that’s fine. For Vince Staples, hip-hop isn’t about pleasure. It’s about unflinching realism, the kind that redemption, with its happy endings and moral clarity, isn’t equipped to handle.

The past has never looked as ugly and unflattering as it has in Vince Staples’ hands, but the thrill of this dogged realism is that he also manages to make it look beautiful. There just might be some truth in nostalgia.

On At.Long.Last.A$AP

At Long Last ASAP, ASAP Rocky

A$AP Rocky has always been a void, a black hole continuously accreting matter into his nucleus. Look no further than his name. “Always Strive and Prosper” is the standard meaning of “A$AP,” but it’s also been defined as “Assassinating Snitches and Police” and “Acronym Symbolizing Any Purpose,” among other things, revealing the fundamental hollowness of the A$AP brand. But despite this lack of a core, Rocky isn’t a dud. His appeal is the sheer luminosity of this accretion, his swagger. In other words, there may be nothing at his core, but it’s always been dazzling to see what he pulls into his orbit. On At.Long.Last.A$AP (ALLA), his second studio album, his gravitational pull remains impressive, but his accretions freefall rather than orbit, colliding instead of shimmering.

ALLA begins with a reflection on religion. The A$AP mob has always goofily flirted with religious imagery, but on “Holy Ghost” Rocky takes the imagery seriously. Speaking frankly, his voice straightforward and nervous, he compares the music industry to a corrupt church. Danger Mouse provides the instrumental, a solemn swirl of twangy guitar and dulled drums that flickers like candles in a sanctuary. Rocky seems to feel the gravitas of the instrumental, but he doesn’t really deliver. Allusions to souls and sacrifices and altars abound, but they don’t seem to be related to Rocky’s life. His head is bowed, and he feels he has to say something, so he just rambles, hoping his god will comprehend.

Rocky has never been a particularly focused rapper. He’s rarely gone more than a few bars without eventually mentioning money, fashion, sex ,or drugs – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but on ALLA that’s precisely what he seems to be trying to do. For the entire first third of the album, the trap, neo-grime, and syrupy Houston beats of his past work are passed over for skeletal instrumentals with vast chasms of dead air. These bare beats feel intentionally challenging, beckoning to be filled by a vocalist with presence and range, but every time Rocky steps into the ring, he meets Apollo Creed. On “Fine Whine” he’s drowned by dreary keys and static synths. His chopped and screwed voice feels less like a vocal effect and more like an actual description of his presence: broken, fragmented, diluted. M.I.A., Future, and Joe Fox briefly appear to liven the dull song, but rather than saving the song, lifting Rocky from the canvas, their cameos hint at what it could have been in more capable hands.

Rocky momentarily finds himself on album highlight “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye,” bouncing around the slick darkness of the beat like Juicy J in Rocky’s own “Multiply” video. “Electric Body,” which follows “LPFJ,” works well too. Schoolboy Q always brings out the menace in Rocky and Rocky always brings out the conceited pretty boy in Q. Unfortunately, these songs are brief, tiny dinghies in an ocean of missteps.

“Jukebox Joints” finds Rocky again attempting to challenge himself. Rapping over slow-burning soul samples courtesy of Kanye West and G.O.O.D. Music producer Che Pope, Rocky reaches within, mentioning his newfound interests in producing, acting, and LSD. His flow is paced and intentional – you can feel his desire to tap into the sentiment of the samples – but his thoughts fall out clumsily, attached to lines about women and fashion. It’s as if Rocky can only try on new things while he’s still wearing his old garments. When the sample changes in the middle of the song, he tries again, announcing, “Let’s get past all the swag, trapping, and fashion talking.” Yet two bars later, he’s already slipping into swag, trapping, and fashion talking. This Rocky doesn’t go the distance.

“Pharsyde” is more successful. Again backed by wispy and somber Danger Mouse production, Rocky drops his voice to a hush and describes the contrast of present-day Harlem and the Harlem that raised him. His verses are uneven, but filled with potential. At one point Rocky beautifully describes being haunted by a local murder: “Found his body parts in awkward places/Like apartments, basements, garbage, vacant lots/Garages, spaces, Harlem’s far too spacious.” At other points he’s delivering clunky lines like “Gentrification split the nation that I once was raised in” and “Used to not give a damn/Now I don’t give a fuck entirely.” Unfortunately, the clunkers win out. But these brief flashes of brilliance suggest that with some focus, mirrors and camera lenses aren’t the only things that  can make Rocky reflect.

In April, Rocky described ALLA as a “return of the god emcee.” This may be true, but the album suggests that he wasn’t referring to himself. From Lil’ Wayne’s Carter 3-era use of autotune on “M’$,” to Pimp C’s posthumous verse on “Wavyside,” to Yasiin Bey’s verse on “Back Home,” to M.I.A.’s verse on “Fine Whine,” Rocky is eclipsed at every turn. And it’s not because he’s hollow. He’s stunted by his inability to accept that hollowness, to work with it rather than constantly fight it by going further inward. In the end, it’s impressive that Rocky was able to assemble such talent – on vocals and behind the boards – but summoning the gods and challenging their reign aren’t the same thing. If A$AP Rocky is to ever be a titan of rap rather than just a mortal with a long rolodex, he’ll have to learn the difference.