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.

TailSpin: Lupe Dumbs it Down

When Kanye rapped, “Choke a South Park writer with a fish stick,” on “Gorgeous,” I laughed. I’m sure that Kanye had more to say about South Park’s over-the-top jab at him, but he elected to respond briefly with sharp humor and wit and that was it. I wish I could say the same about Lupe’s reaction to Spin.

It all started when Spin’s rap blogger, Brandon Soderberg, wrote a hard-hitting response to Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad” video. For Soderberg, the song and especially the video, are mindless and irresponsible. The reductive, simplistic nature of the song’s main topic, the haphazard use of blackface in the video and the slightly patronizing chorus – “Lady better?” Says who? King Arthur? – result in a bloated and unnecessary track that crowds out voices in a conversation that’s been going on for decades. In other words, Lupe’s “contribution” to the discourse on the word “bitch” does nothing for the discourse. For Soderberg, the song is akin to Lupe tardily walking into a boardroom full of women and shouting over everyone: it’s rude, it’s arrogant as fuck and it’s a privilege (Hence the term “mansplaining.”

Lupe Fiasco took Soderbergh’s argument as a personal attack and decided to unleash his Twitter hordes. “Hordes” may seem hyperbolic, but there’s really no other way to describe the legion of people that took to Twitter and to Spin’s website to spew vitriol at this writer. He heard it all – faggot, Jew, zionist, bitch – yet he’s considered the bully.

https://twitter.com/LupeFiasco/status/239093701069127681

While I recognize that Soderberg’s rhetoric within the article is definitely charged, in the end, his argument holds up. When I first heard “Bitch Bad,” I also felt it was lazy and half-baked. From its delivery to its simplicity to is subtle chivalry, the song just doesn’t feel polished. The video made this laziness even more apparent. I expect more from Lupe than tired tropes, stunted flow and two-dimensional content. He’s done much better work in the past. In fact, if you watch the video for Lupe’s song “Dumb it Down” and listen closely, you might find a little irony in the chorus’ sardonic line: “Make a song for the bitches.”

I certainly believe in being held accountable for what you say on the internet, but Soderberg isn’t being held accountable for what he said. He’s being held accountable for what he did: challenge a prominent “intellectual” rapper. I read through Lupe’s myriad retweets and the comments on SPIN. A minority of the responses mentioned Soderberg’s argument. Overwhelmingly, the backlash against the article is just knee-jerk fan bullshit. Of course, these kind of reactions come part and parcel with criticizing things that people are fanatically devoted to. I’ve had my own experience with such things. Nevertheless, I didn’t have an entity with a million followers on Twitter TELL fans to harass me. This kind of reactionary, childish sensitivity is well-known in the music world (what up, M.I.A?), but there’s something gravely disappointing about it being seen from an artist who’s lionized as an intellectual and luminary. If anyone needs to be boycotted, it’s Lupe. Seriously, when Kanye appears to be more mature than you, you’re not being “hated:” you’re doing something wrong.

Album Review: /\/\ /\ Y /\ (Maya)

Although Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is often described as an “explosion in a shingle factory,” I think we can all agree that it is still a wonderful work of art. /\/\ /\ Y /\, M.I.A.’s new album, can similarly be described as an explosion in a haunted Home Depot. However, it is not a wonderful work of art. Listening to this album was punishing and grueling. The album is so excruciatingly awful that I am inclined to believe that her music studio also serves as an S&M dungeon. In fact, I hope it does because then I could say that she created this awful music with the intention of being heavily criticized for it, which would partially excuse her.

The album begins with, “The Message,” a short track that serves as the harbinger of the audio massacre that you will soon experience. The instrumental is classic M.I.A. –  obnoxious, tribal, boisterous, yet catchy – but the lyrics( Headbone connects to the headphones/Headphones connect to the iPhone/iPhone connected to the internet/Connected to the Google/Connected to the government) sound like a podcast from Conspiracy Brother.

The next track is “Steppin Up.” This song is one of the two songs on the album that I actually enjoy. The rambunctious instrumental features odd electronic percussion and sounds as if it was post-dubbed by a foley artist, but it works really well. Reminiscent of Missy Elliot, the lyrics display M.I.A’s confidence and ease. The fact that she is a British female rapper may put her on the fringes, but when it comes down to it, she can still rap.  Ultimately, the track is good because it is devoid of the obscure and poorly executed [pseudo]-political references and irritating overproduction that characterize the rest of the album. It is pure entertainment.

The next song is “XXXO.” If you told me that the artist behind brilliant songs like, “Bamboo Bangaa,” “Paper Planes,” “Bird Flu,” and “Come Around,” wrote, “you tweeting me like tweety bird on your iPhone,” I would call bullshit. Alas, I heard it for myself (3 times to be exact) so I cannot deny it. Even if you ignore the crap lyrics, the overall song is also terrible. The vocals sound like a collaboration between the Kids Bop kids and Madonna with a throat infection and the instrumental sounds like the title track from my dad’s favorite porn VHS from the 90’s.

“Teqkilla” comes up next. It’s about tequila, believe it or not. It’ s actually not a bad song. Despite my lack of experience with Tequila or heavy drinking in general, I found myself really enjoying it. Nevertheless, it eventually bored me. Unless you are Massive Attack, you probably shouldn’t have a song that is 6 minutes long as your 4th track. After “Teqkilla” comes, “Fighting.” Ha, I’m just kidding. I wish I wasn’t though, because the next song, “Lovalot,” is quite a tragedy. Although it began with the corny lyrics,  “They told me this is a free country,/But now it feels like a chicken factory,” I found myself genuinely enthralled by the synergy of the visceral instrumental and M.I.A.’s serious tone. However, upon hearing the chorus, I was wholly disappointed. “I really love a lot, I really love a lot./I really love a lot, I really love a lot./But, I fight the ones that fight me./But, I fight the ones that fight me.” Seriously, M.I.A? This sounds like the mantra for a group of kung-fu hippies (which would probably make a cool comic book ).

The next three songs, “Story To Be Told,” “It takes a Muscle,” and “It Iz What It Iz,” made me feel as if M.I.A. was truly missing in action. Luckily, however, she reappeared, for the song, “Born Free,” which is undeniably the best song on the album. The track begins with a dynamic drum roll that transforms into a synthesizer and percussion free-for-all. 40 seconds later, this segues into the surreal, echoing vocals of M.I.A. The echo effect amplifies her voice to a god-like frequency. The commanding tone works well with the simple, yet powerful statement, “I was born free,” which serves as the chorus. Although I will never see her perform this song live, I don’t mind because the song itself sounds like a live performance. Listening to it makes me feel as if I’m in a giant amphitheater. If you like One Day as a Lion you will definitely like this song.

Sadly, as Nelly Furtado (and others who aren’t as important) have said in the past, all good things come to an end. “Born Free” cannot redeem the tracks that succeed it. “Meds and Feds” is impossibly loud and overproduced. The difference in loudness between this song and the rest of the album is equal to the difference in loudness between a television show and its interstitial commercials (if you’ve ever watched Comedy Central late at night and seen those annoying Girls Gone Wild Commercials, you know what I’m talking about) . I genuinely have no idea why this song is so loud. Moreover, in addition to being egregiously loud, the track is just plain unintelligible, but not in that cool, creative, discordant-but-still-amazing kind of way. It just sucks. “Tell Me Why” and “Space” and follow suit, with the former featuring truly weak lyrics (Tell me why/Things change but it feels the same/If life is such a game/How come people all act the same?) and sounding like a song from Jay Sean’s digital discard pile and the latter being a lame response to M.I.A.’s NY Times and twitter fiasco (Whoa, she dedicated a song to dissing a journalist. She’s  a “real” rapper now).

Interestingly, one of the few things from “Meds and Feds” that I actually understood and can remember was M.I.A.’s use of the phrase, “digital ruckus.”  That is exactly what this album is. However, it is not a good digital ruckus. It not the cacophonous yet appealing, avant-garde masterpiece that M.I.A. wants it to be. It is just silly noise. Now, if she is aware of that, then goddamn, she is really pushing the frontiers  of music (but she isn’t).