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$AP brand. But despite this lack of a core, Rocky isn’t a dud. His appeal is the sheer luminosity of this accretion, his swagger. There may be nothing at his core, but it’s always been dazzling to see what he pulls into his orbit. On At.Long.Last.A$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 Yung Gleesh 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.

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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.