Billboard Cover: A$AP Rocky on Grieving for A$AP Yams, Police Brutality and Why Drugs Help Him 'Cope With Life'
On a late Friday afternoon, in a hotel apartment in London's mercilessly expensive Mayfair area, rapper A$AP Rocky's day is just getting started. Rocky, 26, was in the studio until 8 a.m. working with M.I.A. and producer Danger Mouse. And he is now, he freely admits, "really high." Stylishly dressed in a gray sweater and black pants, both designed by his friend Rick Owens, he is yawning and heavy-lidded. He sprawls on the couch for a while before finally curling up like a cat. "London's my home away from home," he says in a mellow croak.
Rocky has an apartment in New York's Soho and a house in Hollywood, but he has been living in London on and off since June 2014, when he started working on his second major-label album, At. Long. Last. ASAP (out in May). He is protective, verging on paranoid, when it comes to revealing anything about the record. "You can't describe it," he says, opening his laptop to play some songs. "You have to listen to it."
It is, Rocky promises, a very different beast from his first album, 2013's Long. Live. ASAP, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 518,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music. "Last time I was more concerned, subconsciously, with doing something mainstream," he says. "Once I did that, I not only proved to the world but to myself that I could do anything that I wanted."
Rocky, born Rakim Mayers, became an instant star with the release of his 2011 mixtape Live. Love. ASAP, earning an eye-popping $3 million deal with Sony/RCA on the strength of a killer trifecta of charisma, versatility and taste. His rapping incorporates several regional styles but belongs to none, and his music has a heady, hazy quality, like a party gone awry. Like Andre 3000 and Kanye West, Rocky positions himself as a dandy who loves hip-hop but won't settle for being just a rapper. He has, arguably, entered the world of high fashion more smoothly than West, collaborating with designers Raf Simons and Jeremy Scott. Scott tells Billboard that he thinks of Rocky "like a brother -- someone I can count on." Meanwhile, Rocky made his movie debut with an effortlessly charismatic turn in Rick Famuyiwa's Dope, a hit at Sundance in January. (He also plans to launch a design project this year or next with his stylist, Matthew Henson.) Rocky makes it all look easy.
"I don't want to be cliched," he says. "I don't like doing anything anyone else is doing. If leather's popular this year, I'm just going to have to go with suede. If you want to consider my shit alternative, so be it. I just look at it as eclectic."
"We're both into a lot of obscure things that guys from our environment aren't normally into," says rapper Danny Brown. "What I love about him is he doesn't care what anyone thinks. He knows what he wants and doesn't compromise for anyone."
The closest person Rocky ever had to a collaborator, his longtime friend, mentor and business partner A$AP Yams, aka Steven Rodriguez, died in January of an accidental drug overdose, at age 26. Yams was the well-connected hip-hop scenester who, in 2007, invited the 20-year-old Rocky to join his Harlem-based collective A$AP Mob (A$AP stands for Always Strive and Prosper), which most notably also includes the hard-hitting A$AP Ferg. Yams saw himself as Yoda to Rocky's Luke Skywalker, helping the rapper to find his voice, hone his sound and build his profile.
Now, though, Rocky's shaping his own future. One sign of his ever-expanding interests is taped to the wall of the apartment: a grid of stills from Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, which serves as inspiration for the short film he's making to accompany the new album. "It's one of my favorite films at the moment," he says. "I love that -aesthetic." Although he's enthusiastic about the state of hip-hop, praising the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson, J. Cole and Lil B, his reference points for the album are more outre: Portishead, Massive Attack, Thom Yorke and "old '60s psychedelic shit" like The Kinks and The Stooges. "I've been listening to T. Rex all day. You f--- with Electric Warrior? That f---ing album? Man! Let's talk about perfection."
"His musical knowledge runs far and wide," says producer-DJ Mark Ronson, who worked on At. Long. Last. ASAP. "I asked him if he had heard of Tame Impala. He looked at me like I was crazy and proceeded to play me a chopped-and-screwed remix that he made of [the band's] 'Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.' He played me a lot of amazing music that I had never heard of."
Rocky clicks his trackpad and fires up a Ronson production based on an interpolation of "In a Broken Dream," a 1972 hit by Rod Stewart and Python Lee Jackson. Like the other songs he plays, featuring Danger Mouse and an unknown British singer-guitarist named Joe Fox, it's gorgeous, slurred, reflective and audaciously psychedelic. It's anyone's guess what people who loved 2013's horndog posse cut "F---in' Problems," a No. 8 Billboard Hot 100 hit that has sold 2.4 million copies, will make of introspective tracks that find Rocky singing, digging '70s rock and advising, like some Woodstock dreamer, "Harmony, love, drugs and peace is all we need."
"I just poured it all out on this album," says Rocky, nodding his head to the beat. "All my emotions, my thoughts, my feelings. I didn't hold back one bit."
Hip-hop is in the mood for bold gambles -- think West's Yeezus and Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly (which Rocky says he has only skimmed: "I got about two songs I liked"). At. Long. Last. ASAP is emotionally raw and sonically omnivorous, a maverick statement seemingly unconcerned with radio hits. It's the sound of a young MC leaping into the unknown.
"Rocky was the visionary for this album," says Danger Mouse. "He hasn't been willing to compromise."
"You got two types of rappers," says Rocky. "You got the celebrity and the artist. I'm famous, I'm popular -- I'm just not a celebrity. I'm an artist. In my 60s, I don't want to be just remembered as that kid from back in the day that had cool shit."
Rocky says he has been confident since he was 4. He radiates bone-deep self-assurance and the kind of sleek, feline charm that only comes with being ridiculously good-looking. ("Only thing bigger than my ego is my mirror," he boasted on 2011's "Wassup.") His gleaming, king-of-the-world smile could light up Manhattan, and fame hasn't made him any less outspoken. "I've only had this much freedom since they abolished slavery and shit, so I'm going to voice my motherf---ing opinion and speak my mind, all day, every day," he says.
But with the death of Yams on Jan. 18, this year has been tough. That night, Rocky had flown from Los Angeles to New York to visit the Williamsburg house that Yams shared with other A$AP Mob members, but he was too late to see him alive. "I didn't get to physically chill with him," Rocky says quietly. "By the time I went to his house he was dead." (Yams was found with opiates and benzodiazepine in his system.)
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"This is going to sound really cheesy, man," says Rocky. "But he showed me that there are people who can be born from another woman and another man but be as loyal to you as a blood brother, if not more. He had my back, man. Me and him had the same vision, and he knew how to help me reach it."
Rocky was born in Harlem in 1988 and named after legendary Long Island MC Rakim Allah, of Eric B. & Rakim fame. The two men officially met three years ago at a New York radio station, although their first encounter actually happened two decades earlier when Rocky's mother asked Rakim to sign her baby's diaper. At. Long. Last. ASAP forms the acronym ALLA. "I'm taking ownership of the fact that I was named after the god MC himself," says Rocky. "I'm basically saying it's the return of the god."
Rocky downplays the rougher chapters of his peripatetic upbringing in the Bronx, Harlem, North Carolina and Philadelphia. When he was 12 his father went to jail for drug dealing; a year later, his older brother Ricky was shot dead by a rival dealer. Rocky spent some time shuttling between shelters with his mother and two sisters while selling drugs himself: first weed, then crack. "I wasn't no big-time hustler," says Rocky, whose father died in 2013. "I was one of those guys that would do well in the summer and save enough to support my studio time, buy clothes, pay the bills. That lifestyle's wack. I ain't got time for that petty shit, man. I'm bigger than that."
Back then, he used to get heat from the police. "I remember having cops f--- with you just because you're walking with your homies and they're hoping and itching that one of you has got something on you you're not supposed to have, and that's when it all goes down. They never find anything, and they're pissed."
Now, he says, "I don't trouble the law no more. I'm a good guy." Well, most of the time. He just reached an out-of-court settlement with a woman he allegedly hit during a concert in 2013, and he was caught on cellphone video, the night before Billboard spoke with him, losing his temper in an East London bagel shop.
"If I get a little high and drunk, I just might get a little aggressive, but I'm usually cool," he says. "I hate overreacting because you look like an asshole later." And sometimes a poorer asshole. "These people love to sue for no reason. They f--- with you, then they sue you. That's just the way it is."
Rocky briefly acknowledges recent police killings in Ferguson, Mo., New York and elsewhere in one song ("police brutality was on my TV screen") but when it comes to politics he's more circumspect than collaborators like Yasiin Bey and Lamar. "That whole shit's f---ed up, man," he says. "All it does is make me cringe. There's not really much I could do, because I ain't about to shoot no cop in the head, blow his f---ing head off, right now. So I just sit back and pray for the best. If I'm not going to Ferguson or any of these places -- protesting or contributing -- I should shut the f--- up. So that's exactly what I'm going to do. It ain't my place to speak on it."
He would much rather discuss his favorite topic: sex. Rocky lost his virginity at the age of 13, to a girl three years older, and never looked back. The memory sparks a long and graphic reverie about "titties," hooking up during middle-school lunch breaks and his fetish for stewardesses. "When you're young you just want to bone that famous chick on TV," he elaborates. "When you finally do that, what do you do next? You go back to all the weird shit."
Rocky is, however, gallantly tight-lipped about his famous exes, including model Chanel Iman and Iggy Azalea. He says he hasn't spoken to Azalea about the intense backlash that has tainted her meteoric success. "She's fine. We're acting like something unfortunate happened. Last I checked, she was doing well."
For now, he's unattached. "None of the girls want me! No, I'm just having fun. I feel free. You know that Cream song, 'I Feel Free'?" He croons the chorus of the 1966 hit. "That goes off in my mind all day."
Rocky likes to have women in the studio while he's working. "It just works, like peanut butter and jelly." He also is candid about the role of drugs in the creative process: one new song has the refrain "LSD." "It helps me cope with life," he says. "I've been doing this stuff since I got into the industry. People are scared to talk about it." He says he likes psychedelics because his life is psychedelic. "It's trippy. My art, my visuals. Very trippy."
Dope, Rocky's acting debut, is a smart comedy about a reluctant high-school drug dealer. In the film, he plays a much less reluctant dealer, Dom, the kind of small-time goon he has left behind. "I think all of us are that kind of guy -- all of us rappers, to an extent. I never want to be that guy. That dude's corny. He can't even dress! That dude looks like some hip-hop wannabe."
"What immediately struck me about Rocky was his humility and intelligence," says Dope's director Rick Famuyiwa (Our Family Wedding). "Those were things I thought were really striking considering what he achieved at such a young age. He has a set of natural gifts and instincts about acting that you find in someone who has been doing it for a very long time."
Although Rocky calls Dope "an amazing movie," he thinks the dealer character is "too typical" for a rapper. "I want something that gives me more of a challenge and is less cliched. Until I find something that feels right, I'm going to stay my ass off the big screen." There's one director he definitely won't be working with: "I love the fact that Tyler Perry's a successful minority. He actually made it and stands for something bigger. But I hate his f---ing films."
Right now, Rocky's in the studio every night trying to finish an album that A$AP Yams conceived before his death. "He left his notebooks, he left his blueprint," he says. "His album's f---ing incredible. I want to finish what he started." Completing the album is one part of the grieving process. "I've been listening to this song named 'Grief' by Earl Sweatshirt, and I've been rapping to it. It's good grief. I'll be fine. I'm in my Charlie Brown shit. Good grief!"
Yams' death has brought A$AP Mob, his orphaned hip-hop family, even closer together. "We've always been tight," says Rocky. "I didn't think we could be tighter, but to see brothers come together just to cry..." He shakes his head. "We just miss that motherf---er, man."
It's fleeting evidence of a vulnerable streak beneath the cocksure charm. Rocky gives the impression that he always knew he was destined for great things; that he and Yams had it all mapped out from the start. But no, he says, it wasn't like that. "I never knew. I would just hope. Pray. That's all you can really do. Nothing's a given. Anything's possible."