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.