A$AP Rocky ain’t a rapper, folks.
Dude is a bona fide All-American rock star, the type who uses good looks and a magnetic personality to bed gorgeous celebrities and vaguely ethnic models who peddle waist shapers on Instagram. A hell-raising pretty boy clad in designer fashions like the legions of those that came before him, dude does a lot even when it turns out he’s not really doing anything of interest. On his second album, Rocky (born Rakim Mayers) continues exploring, inviting new collaborators and even giving up rapping entirely (on single and standout “L.$.D”). This time, there’s no ploy for a crossover hit, no awkward shoehorning into a Skrillex song, or bloated collab tracks featuring every blog-popular rapper at the time to be found anywhere. Avoiding those trappings is a blessing since Rocky’s best songs usually aren’t any of the singles, but more importantly, it confirms that the Harlem native doesn’t NEED to do those things to stay relevant anymore.
The sound of this album is a stark departure from the constantly flowing codeine drip of earlier A$AP projects. While Rocky has admitted that psychedelic music (and light dalliances with drugs) aided in the recording process as a means of coping with the death of A$AP Mob founder A$AP Yams, initial responses that this is a “druggy” album fall flat considering Rocky’s entire catalog. While that aesthetic is still present—“Fine Whine” sounds like Rocky recorded his vocals in a bottle of molasses—there’s the inevitable departure from the norm, as to be expected on a sophomore release. Rocky isn’t the same person spitting confidently over tripped-out Clams Casino tunes since he first rode into our collective consciousness on the handlebars of A$AP Nast’s bike. It makes sense to want to showcase that growth. You’ve been to a few art parties, you’ve dated a model, Makonnen gave you acid at SXSW (as revealed in a New York Post interview), and you’re just not the same guy you used to be, you know?
This album has a LOT of collaborators, from those who do heavy lifting (executive producer Danger Mouse or the multi-talented Londonite Joe Fox, who went from literally singing on the street for his dinner this time a year ago to appearing on multiple tracks) to those who show up as a “Why yes, I DO have Famous Person A’s number!”-style flash of influence. Kanye West does his thing (while co-producing) on “Jukebox Joints,” but M.I.A. contributes so little on “Fine Whine” that you get the sense that she walked into the wrong session by accident and was asked to contribute SOMETHING. Other than that misstep, everyone does their thing. Yasiin Bey and Lil Wayne spit A1 bars and none other that Rod Stewart himself shows up in a sample to lend a husky-voiced hand. Producers like Thelonious Martin and Mark Ronson provide sturdy framework to support all involved. Everyone is doing their thing. Team work, dream work, you get the gist.
A$AP Yams, who might have been the last of the true A&R men—in the classic “let’s make this artist a star using the tools at our disposal” method, not the “oh, let’s just sign the kid from that Vine video” version—casts a looming shadow over A.L.L.A. His is the last voice you hear, laughing heartily after unleashing the best rant on a rap record since Sean John Combs himself spat venom on Rick Ross “Nobody” last year. His death in January by accidental overdose has clearly affected his friend, but rather than pour his feelings out on the beat, Rocky has chosen to waste time by doing silly shit like alluding that Rita Ora fellated him (on “Better Things”). While no one is expecting dude to lay bare his grief on wax (and we shouldn’t ever expect him to talk if he doesn’t want to), it’s really fucking depressing to see Rocky operating like biz as usual lyrically given the circumstances.
All things considered, this is a solid album. Fans of old Rocky will be happy to hear he hasn’t left them behind and new fans will have a plethora of options to choose from.
Ernest Wilkins is a writer living in Chicago. Follow him @ErnestWilkins.