When A$AP Rocky first emerged at the beginning of the decade, it was by shrewdly repackaging cloud rap and Houston-Memphis hip-hop for the Fashion Week crowd. A few years later, he expanded his palette and dabbled in singing on Long. Live. A$AP, an album that air-dropped two excellent singles and featured both a not-half-bad Skrillex collaboration and a head-pleasing posse cut.
As we waited for At.Long.Last.A$AP, Rocky dribbled out hints about what the album would sound like. Promotional single ‘Multiply’ was nihilistically aggressive; collaborations with FKA Twigs, Lykke Li and Clams Casino sounded promising. Name-dropping trip-hop, Thom Yorke, T-Rex and “old ’60s psychedelic shit” was a head-scratcher, but most tried to withhold judgement.
Maybe we should have been more weary. ‘Multiply’ somehow didn’t make the final cut, Twigs and Clams are nowhere to be found, “psychedelic shit” is on the march, and At.Long.Last.A$AP is an unfocused, overlong slog of an album.
Much has been made of A$AP Yams too-young death in January, and the effect it had on At.Long.Last.A$AP. But as FACT’s Andrew Friedman points out, we don’t know how complete the record was when he passed or how much influence replacement producer Danger Mouse had, or even how far Rocky was down his psychedelic rabbit hole by then.
Whatever the case, At.Long.Last.A$AP needed a stronger hand at the wheel, someone to reel in Rocky’s try-hard eclecticism. It’s 2015, and we’re fine with rap that breaks molds and tries new things, but BlakRoc retreads and psych-rock bore-fests are neither. Instead, Rocky needed to play to his strengths — his rapping has continued to improve, and he still has the charisma and personality to stand out in the crowd — and spend a little more time writing hooks and fleshing out songs.
He also needed someone to challenge his naivety and tell him that Joe Fox, the singer-strummer that Rocky met on the streets of London, isn’t a magical busker with the Right Stuff, or at least the Right Stuff for an A$AP Rocky record (Although his “I don’t like much modern music” protestations fit Rocky’s recent nostalgia tip). It would be unfair to lay the blame for why the album falls flat completely at Fox’s feet… but he doesn’t help. On five songs (including the otherwise entertaining ‘Fine Whine’), he lets the air out of the balloon with a singer-songwriter schtick that recalls, at points, Echo and the Bunnymen and Natalie Imbruglia. At least he can share the blame with Danger Mouse on ‘Holy Ghost’, an overwrought religion metaphor that is as subtle as a Blueshammer to the head.
Rocky fares better with fewer distractions, but some of his best performances come on songs that lack hooks or structure. ‘Canal St’ is a moody, New York throwback, and he nails the mood on ‘JD’, which could use another verse in exchange for a weird James Franco cameo. Similarly, he sounds great over the sinister bassline of ‘M’$’, a song that might go off in a club if the hook came more than once. Things seem to turn around with ‘Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2’, the hypnotic, siren-driven song previewed in the ‘Multiply’ video, and ‘Electric Body’, a digitally-warped sleazefest (Schoolboy Q continues to be lazily misogynistic, but we can probably blame Jay Z for his abhorrent “I could whip that bitch like Ike” line).
The high is short-lived, unfortunately, as the next suite of songs highlights another of the album’s problems, one that also plagued YG and Kendrick Lamar’s album, to varying degrees: the sense that with the right references, tributes and features, an album can catapult itself to legendary status. Rocky nods to Kanye’s flow throughout, and he teams with him for ‘Jukebox Joints’, a soul-sampling medley that doesn’t land (apart from Ye, of course: “Man, everything basic to Ye Guevara / That means Saint Laurent is my Zara”). ‘Max B’ is a rappin’-ass rap tribute to the New York legend powered by a classic Bob James sample — but there’s Joe Fox again (“Did I fuck it up?” Yes.).
The legend-by-proxy push reaches its apotheosis with ‘Wavybone’: a titular nod to Bone Thugs, a Raekwon (cover) sample, and verses by his idols: Juicy J and UGK. Rocky gets to live out his Southern rap dreams, but we’re left to wonder how old Pimp C’s Sheryl Crow-referencing verse is, while rap newcomers run to Genius as soon as they hear the first Southern use of “cock.”
Surprisingly, ‘Everyday’ is the song that best distills Rocky’s strengths and current tastes. The pitch-perfect Rod Stewart sample-not-feature is reworked by Miguel, and Rocky rides both a throwback beat and its 2.0 version. This one was co-written and co-produced by Mark Ronson (with help from Emile Haynie, Jeff Bhasker and Hudson Mohawke), and honestly, one wonders why he couldn’t have taken over for Yams instead of Danger Mouse.
A$AP Yams does make an appearance, at least, with the pure-Yams outro to closer ‘Back Home’. Amid his boasts about the “wave” that A$AP Mob started, he takes shots at “tacky ass muh’fuckers… Wearing all types of mother fuckin’ red and green stripes, over-accessorizing out this mother fucker.” It’s a line that Rocky should have taken to heart: he should have kept surfing the Harlem wave instead of getting lost on a bad acid trip, over-accessorizing with buskers and forgetting how to write songs.