It has taken remarkably little time for A$AP Rocky to ascend to the throne. Tuesday (Jan. 15) — the release date of “Long.Live.A$AP” (Polo Ground Music/RCA Records) — finds him onstage taping “Late Show With David Letterman,” sitting on a golden throne with a mic stand to the side. This week finds him sitting atop the Billboard 200, “Long.Live.A$AP” is offically a No. 1 debut, selling 139,000 copies according to Nielsen SoundScan. .
But back in August 2011, Rocky was just another unknown rapper uploading a video to YouTube. That’s when he posted the eye-catching, retro-rap-inspired clip for “Peso.” A year and some change later, after a whirlwind of highlights-more than 17 million YouTube views for “Peso,” an unexpected invitation to tour with Drake, headlining New York radio station WQHT’s Summer Jam, a firm feel of Rihanna’s backside at MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs) — Rocky is a summation of everything in current hip-hop. At 24, he mixes New York swagger with a Southern inflection as easily as he mixes streetwear with fresh-off-the-runway European designs.
Not since Drake released his heavily anticipated “Thank Me Later” in 2010 has there been a new rap act that’s been as praised (for his artsy visuals, retro image and versatile sound) and prodded (for his fast track to stardom, unorthodox fashion and dismissal of New York’s traditional sound) as Rocky. His meteoric rise is certainly eyebrow-raising: Days before he’d even released his first proper mixtape, the acclaimed “LOVE.LIVE.A$AP,” on Oct. 31, 2011, he signed a $3 million recording contract off the strength of his then mostly online buzz.
“All of this was fast, I can’t front,” Rocky says. “It really got crazy [when] I dropped ‘Peso.’ I did that video and that’s when Drake called me, the bidding war started. All via the Internet. Tumblr. We got lucky. We were blessed.”
It’s been a nonstop push for Rocky ever since. He estimates that in the past year-and-a-half he’s performed anywhere from 200 to 300 dates. Those stops include an assortment of one-offs (headlining Coachella, rowdy gigs at CMJ Music Marathon and South by Southwest), a European summer run, opening for Drake on his Club Paradise tour last winter and headlining a domestic tour with his crew, the A$AP Mob. He performed lead single “Goldie” with the Roots on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” in August, and then hit the stage at the VMAs the following month with Rihanna to spit his verse for her remix of “Cockiness (Love It).”
That song was the highlight of a collaboration-heavy 2012 for Rocky. He appeared in Lana Del Rey’s Camelot-themed “National Anthem” video, where he played JFK to the singer’s Jackie Kennedy. He also guested on standout cuts by T.I. (“Wildside”); Fat Joe, French Montana and Lil Wayne (“Yellow Tape”); Big Boi and electronica duo Phantogram (“Lines”); and labelmate Usher (“Hot Thing”).
“A$AP represents a new breed of young, dope, hungry MCs,” T.I. says. “That’s why it was a no-brainer when the time came to decide whether or not to rock with him. His potential is limitless. He’s definitely one of the special ones.”
Rocky is the centerpiece of a new push into the rap world by RCA Records, previously known mostly for its success with pop, rock and R&B acts. On Jan. 3, the label announced the signing of Los Angeles rapper Kid Ink, who built his buzz with the video for “Time of Your Life,” which has amassed 12 million YouTube views. Meanwhile, the next A$AP Mob member to blow is already in motion: The following week, Polo Ground Music/RCA announced a solo deal with A$AP Ferg in the wake of his single “Work,” which has become a favorite in New York clubs and online, where the video, also featuring Rocky, has netted 1.5 million YouTube views.
“The crew, the movement, is starting to build, in a very real, organic way,” RCA Music Group president/COO Tom Corson says. “There’s no hype there. We’re keeping it real and we’re expecting it to stay that way. Because that’s who Rocky is and that’s his brand.”
“LONG.LIVE.A$AP” is already bearing fruit for the label’s new urban focus, and ASAP himself. The second single, “Fuckin’ Problems,” which features a stacked deck of heavy-hitters (Drake, Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz), became Rocky’s first real radio hit, rising this week to No. 4 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and moving 779,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “Goldie,” the first official single from “LONG.LIVE.A$AP,” only found modest success at radio. The Hit-Boy-produced record peaked at No. 65 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs in June, but it became a favorite with fans and critics, selling 895,000 since it’s release.
WQHT has been a particularly strong and early supporter, making “Peso” a mixshow go-to, premiering “Goldie” and adding “Fuckin’ Problems” to regular rotation. “A$AP Rocky has been buzzing in the minor leagues for a while,” WQHT PD Ebro Darden says. “Now with [“Problems”] a true hit on all platforms, it will take his brand to the next level. It seems like his visual style and his music style clicked at the right time. People really like that he is bringing something new and from New York City.”
However, to look at the usual common denominators (radio, video airplay) is to miss the point of what Rocky is, according to management. “He’s connecting multiple points of interest,” says Chace “Infinite” Johnson, a former Priority Records and ArtistDirect executive who manages Rocky with Geno Sims (and a rapper himself). Indeed, Rocky’s made inroads with the R&B/hip-hop audience, but is comfortable ranging into the world of Del Rey’s hipster pop and even dubstep: Skrillex is featured on “Wild for the Night,” and to wit, actually calls his phone during Rocky’s interview with Billboard. He’s performed at streetwear boutiques like Black Scale in Los Angeles, but also hit the stage at an Alexander Wang fashion show and Miami’s Art Basel fair. Not to mention he’s a darling of online music outposts like the Fader and Pitchfork. The video for “Goldie,” which he co-directed, features Rocky flashing both gold fronts and red-bottom Christian Louboutin loafers, in between shots of malt liquor bottles in paper bags and beautifully shot Parisian panoramas-all these far-flung elements blend to form Rocky’s unique aesthetic.
Johnson says Rocky and his team took this multipronged approach from the beginning. “It started for us with [streetwear brand] Alife and their Alife Sessions, which had a huge reputation for hosting performances at their [Manhattan] storefront for John Mayer and Questlove, Nas, all these different people,” he says. “That was the first place people saw Rocky. They heard his music; ‘Purple Swag’ was out there. But it was just a downtown tastemaker phenomenon that lived online, on Tumblr.
“But then we did stuff to expose that secret to people,” Johnson adds. “Early on, before Rocky was signed, we had him in line with Vice, the agency of record for Intel, and they had their Creators Project, so he performed at their CMJ [event] in [Brooklyn]. All these things galvanized people from multiple industries: gear heads, skaters, deep hip-hop heads.”
Just as important, Rocky’s diverse reach and image flowed naturally, bottom-up, from Rocky himself, according to Sims, a former Bad Boy A&R and advertising specialist at Berlin Cameron United. “People worry about standing next to a Coke bottle and call it branding,” he says. “They should let the artist develop who they are and then brand them. Let the artist cultivate and grow to have their own identity and then you brand them.”
Now that Rocky’s cemented his own distinct personal brand, a blitzkrieg effort is under way to put his new album in the forefront. Earlier this month, MTV premiered the arty video for the title track, and his aforementioned appearance on “Letterman”-backed by an all-star triumvirate of Fool’s Gold co-founder A-Trak, veteran DJ Clark Kent and producer AraabMusik on turntables and samplers-pushed that song as well, along with newest single “Wild for the Night.” Later this month, the rapper will shoot videos for “Wild” and “Angels.” And in March he’ll venture out on a 27-date North American outing opening for Rihanna.
Polo Ground and RCA Records executive Bryan Leetch calls it “super-serving” Rocky’s audience. “He’s got all these different kind of fans and he’s probably one of the most unique artists to come along in a long time,” Leetch says. “So we needed to find the type of records to naturally tie all those audiences together.”
For Rocky, the challenge is to land a striking blow while taking aim at multiple targets. Armed with a slew of contributors both old (Clams Casino, A$AP Ty Beats) and new (Santigold, Danger Mouse), Rocky looks forward to introducing the wider world to his personal universe-commercial expectations be damned.
“Hip-hop doesn’t appreciate or understand me, at times,” Rocky says. “And this is a big understanding: “LONG.LIVE.A$AP”– here, clear as day. These are all my ideas, from the beginning to the end. I don’t care to satisfy people. I really don’t. Because when I started out with this shit it was all out of love and I was hoping they liked it. I still hope they like it–but I don’t care to satisfy people because I’m just doing me.”