It’s easy to criticize ASAP Rocky. His oftentimes superficial lyrics, pretty boy image and rapid rise to fame — from unknown Harlem rapper to YouTube sensation to rap royalty with a $3 million deal with RCA Records — leads one to question his current stature: Is Rocky truly a great rapper? Or is he a novelty, so blinded by his meteoric ascent to riches that his talent is endangered by his own uncontrollable cockiness?
Such criticisms perhaps reflect their purveyors’ ideologies (and jealousy?) more so than they denounce Rocky’s. His new album, Long.Live.ASAP, continues where his highly-acclaimed 2011 mixtape, Live.Love.ASAP, left off. Still here are Rocky’s pretty motherfucker self-descriptions and excessive braggadocio, rapped atop hazy, ethereal beats. But to criticize Rocky for his superficial themes and persona is to ignore the extenuating circumstances that might be influencing his overall sound.
Long.Live.ASAP finds Rocky in a comfortable position. In a few short years, the rapper has gone from a life of violence and unease to one of money and fame. On the phenomenal track “Suddenly,” Rocky describes his breakneck pace into a life of comfort: “Now the kids all look up to me, them bitches wanna fuck with me / My idols say what’s up to me, from ugly to comfortably / Suddenly.” Rocky’s lyrics are primarily concerned with the themes he is criticized for — money, bitches, drugs — but what sets Rocky apart from other rappers is his unusual juxtaposition of music and lyrics. Any banger beat could turn Rocky’s lyrics into a solid Gucci Mane or Waka Flocka track; Rocky instead opts for brooding, ethereal beats — courtesy of Clams Casino, Hit-Boy and Rocky — which either accentuate the blissed-out comfort of Rocky’s newly acquired affluence or elucidate Rocky’s insecurity about his fame. “Fuckin’ Problems” features an uninspired, malicious chorus of “I love bad bitches, that’s my fucking problem,” but sports a sinister, low-pitch synth backbone, which sonically equates loving bad bitches to some sort of crippling addiction. Similarly, on “LVL,” Rocky raps, “Fuck I’m ‘sposed to do with all this new cash / Thousand dollar drawers just to hold my balls / All I ever do is let my jewels sag.” Rocky loves his money, but it riddles his life with ambiguity.
Rocky’s haunted past is a clear weight on his present psyche. On “Long Live ASAP,” Rocky reflects on life in Harlem over an ominous, paranoid beat: “Ain’t had no pot to piss in, now my kitchen full of dishes / Nose bloody from that sniffin’, your heroin addiction / Trigger finger itching, fuck parental supervision.” But he chooses to distance himself from this past life and demands, “Don’t view me as no conscious cat, this ain’t no conscious rap.” Rocky instead prefers to dwell on his newfound comfort.
As a result of this ambiguity — the duality between Rocky’s troubled past and instantaneous present comfort — Long.Live.ASAP is a fascinating character study. While the album lacks the sonic cohesiveness and epic intimacy of another recently-released character study — Kendrick Lamar’s fascinating good kid, m.A.A.d. city — its broad swath of musical influences (including the Skrillex-produced “Wild for the Night”) helps highlight Rocky’s conflicting thoughts on fame, money and life. Though the album is sprawling and unfocused, its unevenness is compensated by its numerous moments of greatness. ASAP Rocky vehemently rejects conscious rap, yet sports a sound that never fully allows acceptance of his life of affluence. Rocky walks a fine line between intensely personal hip-hop and cocky bangers. The precariousness nature of this line is what makes him such a fascinating and important rapper. If he strays from it in the future, the novelty of ASAP Rocky could easily wear off.
4 out of 5 stars