We live in a post-“good kid, m.A.A.d city” world. Released less than three months ago, Kendrick Lamar‘s debut album raised the bar for storytelling in mainstream hip-hop, as K-Dot’s “short film” wrapped a narrative arc and provocative overarching themes in a coat of sinewy beats and pitch-perfect guest spots. “good kid, m.A.A.d city” was one of the most celebrated releases of 2012 — Billboard.com named the LP its second-favorite album of the year, behind Frank Ocean’s equally ambitious “Channel Orange” — and, upon its release, challenged the breadth and sonic capacities of its genre in a way that hadn’t been done since Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” two years earlier.
Enter A$AP Rocky, another budding rap star who shared space with Lamar on Drake’s Club Paradise tour and recruited the Compton MC for two cuts on his own debut, “Long.Live.A$AP.” Following his acclaimed 2011 mixtape, “Live.Love.A$AP,” Rocky’s Polo Grounds/RCA debut is the most heavily anticipated debut hip-hop album since… “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” And while it’s wholly unfair to compare the two works based solely upon the proximity of their release dates, the already long shadow of Lamar’s musical coronation at times feels like a detriment to “Long.Live.A$AP,” an album with a similar amount of dazzling production but nowhere near the lyrical chops of “good kid, m.A.A.d city.”
A$AP Rocky, a 24-year-old Harlem native, is a blindingly charismatic figure, but is still trying to find himself as a rapper. “Long.Live.A$AP” at times sags when the MC struggles to conjure anything to say aside from standard rap posturing and quickly scripted similes. For instance, “1 Train,” a six-minute meet-up of seven rappers, starts off with Rocky boasting the extra O’s in his bank account, transitioning from a Lamborghini to a Mustang and flicking off a Chef Boyardee name-drop; he proceeds to then get trounced by Lamar’s vocal acrobatics, Yelawolf’s brief thoughts on race in hip-hop and Danny Brown’s gonzo metaphors.
Fortunately, the second half of “Long.Live.A$AP” finds Rocky settling in with more revealing subject matter, as tracks like “Fashion Killa” and “Suddenly” are impressively measured in their lyrical concepts. But even if Rocky hadn’t picked up his wordplay, “Long.Live.A$AP” sounds fantastic: producers like Clams Casino, Noah “40” Shebib and Hit-Boy all provide pummeling rhythms for the Harlem MC to grind over, and even the Skrillex offering, “Wild For The Night,” is an expertly produced piece of electro-rap candy. “Long.Live.A$AP” may not change the game like “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” but A$AP Rocky’s absorbing debut is more physical in its pleasure — as in, you’ll be knocking your head to some of these songs for months.
Which tracks on A$AP Rocky’s debut album are standouts? Check out our track-by-track examination of the deluxe version of “Long.Live. A$AP.”
1. Long Live A$AP
A lullaby bumping up against a nightmare: as a woozy beat alternates between the candlelit hook and esoteric verses, A$AP unveils his fangs and offers some heavy assonance. If it’s not perfectly aligned, the arrangement is deeply interesting.
An advance single that overcomes its early release and some dubious lyrics to serve as an anchor of the album’s first half. Want to know why? Look no further than Hit-Boy’s monstrous production, composed of tinny flecks of rhythm and echoing chants.
3. PMW (All I Really Need) feat. ScHoolboy Q – The duo behind “Hands on the Wheel” once again demonstrate their chemistry in another gloriously reprehensible anthem. ScHoolboy’s unbounded energy seems to bring out the best (and filthiest) in A$AP.
4. LVL – Clams Casino submits another cloud-rap banger, although Rocky’s surprising sluggishness makes it seem like he’s unsure of how to ride this complex instrumental. The final minute is essentially zonked-out ambience.
5. Hell feat. Santigold – Santi White is more than game (if a little miscast) as the hook provider on “Hell,” a weird mishmash of more Clams Casino density, pop sing-song and lines like “N—as say I’m blessed/My bad, I forgot to sneeze!”
6. Pain feat. OverDoz – “UH! Pain! UH! Pain!” goes the beginning of this fame lamentation, marking the third straight song that sounds trapped in molasses. There are intriguing concepts here, but the clunky wordplay (“Almost fucked fame, but she came with money/I got two bad bitches, haters wanna take them from me!”) does this one in.
7. F–kin’ Problems feat. Drake, Kendrick Lamar & 2 Chainz
Stupid fun to the fullest: the 40-produced Top 40 hit still crackles with a particularly engaging Drake verse and one of the most boneheaded hooks in recent memory. Turn this up and forget your f–kin’ problems.
8. Wild For The Night feat. Skrillex – The moment at which Skrillex’s bleary-eyed laser blasts arrive on “Wild For the Night” is one of the strangest in an album full of unexpected pairings. Points given for such a crazily ambitious concept.
9. 1 Train feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T. – In an era of hip-hop where a new “Triumph” is nearly impossible to locate, “1 Train” presents a highly successful summit of the genre’s rising stars. All seven MCs are on point, but Yelawolf and Danny Brown make for the most devastating one-two punch.
10. Fashion Killa – The strongest run on the album starts with Rocky nodding to style icons in his storytelling and smartly getting out of the way of the hazily chopped vocal sample that serves as a beat. Massive replay value.
11. Phoenix – Rocky’s lyricism rises up on an angry manifesto that wrestles with wealth, respect and suicide. Even if some of the momentum is lost as the track winds down, the MC is finally shedding some light on himself.
12. Suddenly – Make no mistake, the 2:28 mark of “Suddenly” — where the beat comes in and Rocky essentially blacks out over it — is the best moment of “LongLiveA$AP,” but the rest of “Suddenly” soars due to richly revealing lines like “We had cookouts and dirt bikes, and dice games, and fist fights, and fish fries, and shootouts, like one Sig with two rounds.”
13. Jodye – A bruising bit of boom-bap that would sound at home on a Tyler, The Creator album, “Jodye” allows A$AP to slam his syllables together and sneer without abandon. The track is one of the young MC’s most breathtaking battles yet.
14. Ghetto Symphony feat. Gunplay & A$AP Ferg – “Dinner date for 1K, shopping date for 2K, bougie-ass bitch made me wait to fuck for two days,” Rocky seethes, proving that romance is indeed alive and well. After serving as an exclamation point on Kendrick Lamar’s “Cartoons & Cereal,” Gunplay once again showcases an unhinged vibrancy.
15. Angels – The second straight song on the album to sample an Imogen Heap track, “Angels” is a distillation of the album’s strengths: vocal distortion, a forward-thinking beat and Rocky’s chameleonic ability to sound at home over it.
16. I Come Apart feat. Florence Welch – Pairing Florence Welch’s big-hearted sincerity with Rocky’s cool exterior may seem like an odd decision, but “I Come Apart” doesn’t try to overextend itself and establishes a common ground between the artists. Don’t be surprised to hear this on pop radio soon.