“Pizzazz, charisma, character” is how ASAP Rocky (who styles the S with a dollar) described his home neighbourhood of Harlem to a New York Times critic in 2011, the year he went from being a low-level drug dealer, who had spent time in homeless shelters as a teenager, to signing a US$3 million record deal at the age of 22.
It’s also an instructive summary of his own appeal. As well as being a dexterous producer who can switch styles as well as anyone raised by the internet, Rocky (real name Rakim Mayers) has always had a cool-kid shine, the ability to attract attention without looking like he’s trying. A recent Billboard cover announced him as “rap’s new rock star”: he wears futuristic designer ensembles, he’s handsome and supremely confident; he heads up a tight collective of ambitious rappers and producers known as ASAP Mob, and his favourite topics are intoxicants, women, and himself. His debut album Long. Live. ASAP hit No 1 in the US when it come out in 2013.
Rocky said recently that he wanted to leave “pizzazz” behind for this second album, to prove he’s more than a mere entertainer, and while he’s still only halfway there, it bears the marks of a young artist finding his voice: oscillating between labels-and-Lamborghinis escapism and the unease that’s waiting for him when the party starts to burn out.
Soul-baring’s not generally his thing, and neither is commenting on the wider cultural context. His biggest hit to date was about inconvenience of his many paramours.
Much of this record’s pleasures are in its swagger and its relish of texture, rhyme and rhythms, with exuberant, slapdash lyrics, like “Rolling through, hitting switches, rolling ditches, blowing kisses/To the bitches, holding biscuits, what’s the business?” from Everyday. But there are also glimmers of dissatisfaction, too, with mopy singer-songwriter Joe Fox, whom Rocky discovered selling CDs on the street in East London, contributing emo-ish lines like “This love won’t last forever”.
It’s to Rocky’s credit as a producer that he’s fascinated by a wide range of musical styles; he drew flack in his early days for borrowing from hip hop sub-genres from around the US, rather than sticking to the sounds of his native New York.
He’s never been shy about acknowledging his debt to the Houston “Chopped and screwed” style, which pitch-shifts vocals until they are low, slow and slurred. The effect mimics the experience of drinking a toxic concoction of prescription-strength cough syrup that contains codeine and sedatives – the subject of Rocky’s early hit Purple Swag. It was most likely responsible for the death both of the Houston sound’s pioneer, DJ Screw, in 2000, and ASAP Yams, co-found-er of ASAP Mob and Rocky’s most valued mentor, in January.
Yams is credited as an executive producer on the album and his loss is a huge blow to Rocky as both an artist and as a person already too acquainted with tragedy. (He lost his father to prison at 12 and his older brother to a fatal shooting the following year.) Also on the lengthy list of producers are the stars Danger Mouse, formerly of Gnarls Barkley, and Mark Ronson, whose hit Uptown Funk was inescapable over the winter.
Many of the tracks on At. Long. Last. ASAP are slow, murky and not particularly radio friendly, sounding like a reveller trying his best to stay conscious, or happily drifting away. LSD, one of the album’s three singles, is stripped-down, full of sighs, gasps, sparkling waves of keyboards and Rocky’s hushed voice singing about feeling alternately loved-up and alienated: “Party just started up/ Dreamin’ of sharin’ worlds/ Held this feeling for way too long/ Said ‘I really wanna let it go.’”
Everyday is another single, which features a sample of Rod Stewart, of all people, singing a chorus from a Python Lee Jackson song. It comes across at first like the soundtrack to a Sunday afternoon snooze, but it’s enlivened by Rocky’s verses, in which he’s bragging about Porsches and conquests one second, and playing word association games with darker themes the next: “I’m seeing ghosts/ A solo is now a poet, hypnosis, overdose on potions/ Adjusting to the motions and getting out all my emotions.”
It’s fashionable now to cut up some rock with your rap – think Bon Iver on Kanye’s Yeezus – but both this sample and Fox’s strumming and crooning, which pops up all over the record, feel like a mismatch. The few bars contributed by M.I.A. are a little half-hearted; other featured artists, like Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), Lil Wayne, and Yeezy himself, come off better.
There was a period in which Rocky thought he’d be content to be a model and a producer, rather than a rapper, and he still has plenty of fall-back options. In addition to his music and the label he helped launch, ASAP Worldwide, he has a supporting role in Dope, a smart coming-of-age comedy that was a big hit at Sundance, and modelled for Salvatore Ferragamo’s spring/summer 2015 campaign.
On the strength of this album, falling back seems unlikely. Rocky’s a talented producer whose eclectic sound is more than the sum of its parts. It’s probably true that a lot of his popularity is still down to his pretty-boy charm, his swagger, and his energy, when he can pull himself together; the upbeat, braggy tracks M’S and Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2, on which he plays up the millionaire playboy role, are two of the album’s strongest and most fun.
He’s got plenty of growing up still to do, as evidenced by some ugly disses and adolescent sexism, and his voice isn’t yet as distinctive and well-developed as his most talented peers, like Drake and Kendrick, but he’s headed there, as long as his body and mind can withstand the hyperbolic ASAP lifestyle.
The glimmers of introspection on this album, mixed with that rock-star pizzazz, point towards a long, interesting future, and even a shot at graduating to rap’s top echelons.