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 But You Caint Use My Phone

But You Caint Use My Phone Erykah Badu 2015 album cover

Smartphones are the culmination of over a century of technological achievements. Enhanced processors, intricate circuitry, capacious storage, hyper-sensitive touchscreens – the list of innovations is lengthy, complex, and still growing. Alongside this list of advancements is an equally dense list of anxieties: which emojis to use, when and where phones are allowed, how many texts can be sent without seeming intrusive, ad nauseum. Despite their conveniences, phones, especially smartphones, are a constant source of stress, alienating and connecting in equal measure. But You Caint Use My Phone taps into this contradiction, exploring the deep ambivalence that comes with being so attached to phones.

Inspired by Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” But You Caint Use My Phone singularly focuses on phones as a muse. Badu’s first full-fledged project since 2010’s New Amerykah Part Two, But You Caint Use My Phone picks up where that album left off, using personal relationships as a lens for the larger world. Produced entirely by Badu and Zach Witness, the mixtape melds soul, R&B, and hip-hop into a dazzling half-hour statement. The thrill of the brief mixtape is the thoroughness of its fascination with phones. Dial tones, voicemails, operators, text message notification sounds, radiation – Badu is interested in phones not just as symbols but as multi-purpose objects that teem with functions and quirks, infinite ways of acting in the world.

On “Cel U Lar Device,” her fuzzy and sensual reworking of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Badu injects a voicemail message into the middle of the song. The message gives callers 8 touch-tone options, many of which are hilariously snarky: “If you’re calling to beg for some shit, press 4. If you’re calling to beg for some shit and this is the pre-call before the actual begging, press 5. If you’ve already made that pre-call and this is the actual call to beg, press 6.” The humor and detail of the voicemail seem straightforward, but Badu’s being quite clever. If “Hotline Bling” is about the nostalgic joy of a past booty call – “that could only mean one thing” – “Cel U Lar Device” is about calls meaning too many things, so many things that Badu has a directory for her callers. The voicemail ends by undercutting itself entirely – “If you’re calling to say peace and don’t really fit into any of those descriptions, text me, because I don’t really answer voicemail,” Badu dryly announces before the beep – but it only emphasizes Badu’s point. A single call can communicate a world of feelings. Badu is just too jaded to deal with the calls that always waste her time.

Although the mixtape seems to be a response to the current era, especially the quasi-Luddite anthem “Phone Down,” the form and content of the tape are deeply in conversation with the past. Elements of Usher’s “U Don’t Have To Call,” New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man,” the Isley Brothers’ “Hello It’s Me” and Badu’s own “Tyrone,” the source of the mixtape’s title, all make appearances, subtly reminding us that phones have always been at the uncomfortable nexus of intimacy and privacy, distance and proximity. On “Dial’Afreq” Badu goes even further than human concerns, connecting our relationship to cell phones to the deaths of bee colonies. The personal is the political is the ecological.

These connections to old songs and sentiments reveal the true theme of the tape: tautology. “Hello hello, hey, hello, hello” Badu purrs on “Hello” and “Hi.” “But you can’t use my phone” Badu repeatedly declares on “Caint Use My Phone.” There’s an intrinsic redundancy at the heart of communication, especially greetings, but for Badu there’s something thrilling in that constant recurrence, the cycling between hearing a voice and hearing a voicemail, between feeling loved and feeling rejected, never knowing which will come next.

The mixtape’s composition plays with that thrill throughout, using “Hotline Bling” as a leitmotif, the song’s playful drums making regular cameos, but always doing something different. Badu’s nimble voice works similarly, stretching out into taunting melodies on “Phone Down,” reminiscent wails on “Cell U Lar Device” and hopeful croons on “What’s Yo Phone Number/Telephone.” Yet it’s always still her voice, its power stemming not just from what it is, but what it could be: a plea, a confession, a greeting or all in one.

“Tyrone” was a very clear message to no-good, deadbeat lovers: leave. Its final lyrics, “But you can’t use my phone,” were even clearer: leave immediately; I’m so done with you that I don’t even want you to linger to make the phone call that will help you leave. But You Caint Use My Phone is much less coherent, but that’s precisely its strength. Our glowing metallic appendages may be disruptive and poisoning, covered in feces and pizza particles, but they’re also connective and enriching. The trade-off isn’t sustainable, but the trade must go on. All we can do, Badu insists, is keep renegotiating the terms, powering our phones on and off but always continuing the conversation.

Mystique Was Right – (On All-New Wolverine # 1 & 2)

Mystique WolverinesWolverine is one of the oldest X-Men institutions. He has his own rogue’s gallery, his own X-Men teams, and his own onomatopoeic sound effect. He has had more mini-series than some entire X-Men titles have had issues and has appeared in every single live-action X-Men movie, often as the main character. Even after his canonical death in the comic, two full series were dedicated to just his legacy. He’s that important.

One of these series, Wolverines, did the tortuous work of fleshing out the villains, clones, children, and friends that have orbited Wolverine, proving, amazingly, that despite their healing factors, claws, rage, and willingness to kill that they were more than just pale derivatives. Even better, the series was propelled by a lesbian love story.

All-New Wolverine, a relaunch of the Wolverine character, cements his death but preserves the institution. In the first issue, X-23, a clone of Wolverine, descends upon Paris in search of a man being targeted for assassination by an unknown group. Rushing through rain in a bulky overcoat, she finds him near the Eiffel Tower, saving him mere seconds before sniper fire rains down upon them both. The man escapes, but X-23 takes a bullet to the brain, momentarily killing her.

All-New Wolverine X-23 Laura Kinney

As her healing factor brings her back from the dead she unconsciously recalls an exchange with the original Wolverine where he encourages her to resist her programming, to be Laura Kinney and not X-23, the programmed assassin. They both wear their X-Force uniforms, grim gray costumes with black stripes and splashes of red: they are killers. Wolverine regrets X-23’s inheritance of his burden, but he praises her reluctance to kill. She holds promise, he believes.

This scene is the crux of the comic and the subtle justification for the new series. Laura is not Logan: she is someone and something different.

Potentially. When X-23 recovers from the kill shot, setting her sights on the person who fired it, she throws off her overcoat, revealing the iconic blue and yellow costume of her genetic father. Enraged, she storms the Eiffel Tower. Bolting up the tower, she sniffs out the sniper then confronts her, beating her into submission. The fight scene emphasizes X-23’s reluctance to kill. She begins the fight by slicing through the sniper’s gun. For the rest of the fight her claws are retracted: her weapons of choice are fists and finesse. This is a subtle move, establishing this Wolverine’s desire to be ethical, to be better. 

Laura Kinney X-23 nonviolence

Panels from Issue #1

In the moment it works. When the defeated villain summons a drone and then jumps from the tower, killing herself, X-23 screams “No!” and it feels sincere. Death was precisely how she didn’t want this encounter to end.

This disinclination toward violence continues in issue 2, where the villain from issue 1 (who turned out to be a clone of Laura, sigh) is revealed to be one of many clones. In a sequence that is similar to the confrontation in issue 1, Laura pops her claws just to disarm her opponents and then pleads for the encounter to not end in death.

X-23 All-New Wolverine

Panels from Issue #2

Again, in the moment this works. But in the context of the institution of Wolverine, this fear of being an instrument of death is stale. Since at least 2000 Logan has had this exact relationship to death: the mini-series “The Twelve” had him literally become a character named Death; Uncanny X-Force explores the absurd circularity of his wanton killings; Uncanny Avengers explores the direct consequences of his killings; Wolverine and The X-Men explores the tension of trying to teach others to respect life when you’re a known killer; Wolverine (vols. 5 & 6) features him without his healing factor, rendering him vulnerable to death both literally and psychologically.

If the point of this comic is to establish Laura as a different Wolverine, to saddle her with the same enemy, the same fears, the same burden that the character has dealt with for ages, is grossly lazy at best and deeply sexist at worst. Is being a literal clone not torture enough?  Is constantly screaming “No!” the extent of her character?

Even her supporting cast is stale. In the first issue, the X-Man Angel, who has been established as her love interest, helps her take down the drone and attempts to comfort her as she recovers.  In the second issue he flies her to her apartment and they flirt in mid-air. There almost seems to be some weak joke at work. The original Wolverine and Angel were notoriously at odds. Angel regularly accused Wolverine of savagery, once even leaving the X-Men because he couldn’t stand Wolverine’s presence (Uncanny X-Men 148). The relationship might not be a callback to that old tension, but even if it isn’t, why is the so-called all-new Wolverine already being tethered to a character who is [literally] from the 1960s? (through a goofy time-travel plot that is now canon – i.e., the series All-New X-Men vol. 1 – the 5 original X-Men have returned to the present.)

Wolverines ended with a rejection of the need for Wolverine. Although the series was framed as a quest for Mystique to resurrect Destiny, her dead lover, the final issue revealed that Mystique had been tricked (by Destiny) into resurrecting Wolverine because, in Destiny’s words, “The world needs a Wolverine.” Deeply outraged, Mystique disagreed, choosing to leave them both dead. Although All-New Wolverine #1-2 has flashes of promise, as long as X-23 is fundamentally the same character, Mystique was right. Wolverine – whether Logan or Laura – is better off dead.

Mystique Wolverines X-Men

 

Ain’t I Clean Though? Quick Notes on Respectability Politics and Vanity

Last week, Code Switch ran an article about the origin of respectability politics. They didn’t find an exact answer (because there probably isn’t one), but I don’t want to focus on that. At the top of the article was a sample of directives/advice/commands that a respectability politician might offer:

Pull up your pants. Calm down. Get good grades. Stop the violence. Buy a gun. Fix your hair. Go to church. Have a normal name. Speak properly. Be polite. Put your hands up. Stop loitering. Go inside. Have a good job. Smile. Apologize. Don’t shout. Try harder. Own a home (in the right neighborhood). Lose weight. Be braver. Do better. Don’t move. Seriously. Stay. The heck. Put.

There’s a clear individualist bent to all of these mandates. This is DIY anti-racism, the self being the only thing that needs to change. There’s no point in reiterating how ridiculous and condescending it is to be told that beating structural racism is simply a matter of self-improvement, but I do think that it’s worth noting how deeply vain this list is.

Smile, pull up your pants, go to church, speak properly – all of these instructions can be flipped: be seen smiling, be seen with your pants up, be seen at church, be heard speaking “properly.” Respectability politics is heavily invested in perception, in surfaces.

It’s not surprising that a racial group that has [primarily] been visually marked would invest in perception. But what’s troubling is how naive this investment is. To strive for respectability is to submit your self-image, your self-worth, your self-importance, to the person looking at you, judging you, evaluating you, shaming you. To be respectable is to become a surface.

Respectability isn’t so much individualist as it is submissive, deferential.

I can see the appeal. There’s an inherent contingency in submission. Looks can change. Judges can break with precedent. Shame can become admiration. Maybe if we just look good enough, they’ll have to smile back.

But what if there’s no one looking back at you? Structural racism has always struck me as horrifyingly inhuman. One of the most memorable things about the Case for Reparations was that although Coates followed the Ross family, the outcomes for an entire generation of black people were largely the same. This really can’t be overstated. Despite the fact that black migrants from the South traveled north along different trajectories, settling in different cities, and interfacing with various government institutions – they largely all had similar outcomes. And this isn’t surprising. As Coates forcefully argues, absconding with black wealth was policy. In other words, what he gets at in that piece is that institutions are designed to eliminate contingency, to standardize outcomes.

So even if respectability politics did begin to acknowledge structural racism, to concede that there is a system, not a just a bigoted person or two exacting judgment and pulling triggers, it could still only submit, looking flawless in front of the obelisk instead of toppling it or finding away around it. I honestly can’t imagine a belief system that is more suited (pun intended) for late capitalism.

So, all that to say, maybe Riley Freeman should be the new poster child for respectability politics. I think he gets it.

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.