“Have you ever cheated on your boyfriend?”
A$AP Rocky and I are in a studio in Brooklyn for a cover shoot and interview, and he’s running the show. So far, he’s asked me when I bought my white, hoof-like Martin Margiela boots, what brands my black jeans and leather jacket are, whether or not I have a boyfriend, and how long I’ve been with said boyfriend. But there’s more he’d like to know.
“So, listen. Hold on, let me check,” he says. Committed to playing the role of interviewer, he looks down at the white notecards he borrowed from me and pretends to examine his next question. “You got any kids?”
“Oh, yeah. We gotta mark that one off.” He pretends to draw an “X” with his fingers on the notecard. “Do you want any kids?”
“Yeah. One, maybe two. Do you want kids?”
“I do,” he says.
“Boy or girl?”
“Sometimes I say girl, sometimes I say boy. It depends. I’ll take whatever.”
“One or two. Maybe not right now, but eventually.”
“Nah, it’s not too soon for me.”
Rocky is extremely charming—magnetic personality, a perfectly chiseled jawline that hugs a perfect smile—when he wants to be. And right now, he’s in a playful and jovial mood. “I’m having fun by the way,” he says.
It’s a stark departure from just minutes ago. Earlier in our conversation, the 29-year-old Harlem rapper was avoiding my questions, telling me to never ask a few again. At one point, when I asked what happened to the luxury fur line he once said he’d been developing, he asked if I was “working with the feds.”
“Why are you trying to get me in trouble so much, bro?” he said. “Do you have actually have a vendetta against me? Why are you asking me about fur in 2018 knowing them PETA motherfuckers are gonna come looking for me, knowing I been killing my Instagram with furs the past couple months?”
It’s hard to tell if he was bored, tired, irritated, or high off the blunts he’d been hitting. Maybe it was a combination of everything. In any event, Rocky turns the charm on and off at will, and it’s impossible to tell when each version of Rocky will emerge. He doesn’t seem to care what I think, an interesting tactic for a rapper with more to sell than ever.
We’re here because A$AP Rocky is gearing up to release his new album, Testing. It will be his third solo project, his first in three years. It will also be his first album without the guiding hand of A$AP Yams, the rapper’s best friend, partner and, for a lack of a better term, spiritual guru. (Yams died from an accidental overdose in 2015.) “It wasn’t the same without Yams,” Rocky says in a low voice. “But it’s with any legacy that loses a pioneer; you gotta keep going. Yams is a spirit. He’s an energy. He was always about discovering new talent and trying to put new people on. I think that’s what validated him in hip-hop. We miss him. RIP to A$AP Yams. I had to do what Puff had to do when Biggie died, or anybody who loses somebody.”
The album was initially slated for a 2017 release, but was pushed back because Rocky wanted to perfect it. “Everything has to be aligned correctly,” he recently told Peter Rosenberg during Complex’s new show Open Late. “One little thing, one little mishap, one little imperfection could throw off a whole cycle. I would prefer to put out music to change people’s mood or uplift or get a feeling or a reaction, opposed to just making music to stay relevant for the sake of popularity.”
But the buzz picked back up at the top of 2018 when Rocky began to drop new songs on SoundCloud: “5ive $tar$,” “Money Bags Freestyle (Dean Blunt Meditation),” and “Above.” At first, the artworks featured an image of a car wheel with a yellow strip over it with the word “TESTING.” Later, it was changed to a yellow background and the word “DUMMIE” in all black caps. Then, in early April, he released a new single, “A$AP Forever,” along with an accompanying music video directed by frequent collaborator Dexter Navy.
Now, Rocky is ready for his comeback. “I’m starting to get inspired again,” he says. “Everybody’s making music and shit. I don’t wanna put out shit when everybody’s all quiet. Nah. Now, the champions are coming back out and making real music. It’s like friendly sparring. It’s time.”
“It’s like the second coming of Jesus,” A$AP Ant adds. “But we never went nowhere though. We was chillin’ getting money.”
Which is true: For the past few years, Rocky took some time to focus on his businesses and develop new artists. “I really wanted to take time out to show people I was an entrepreneur,” he told GQ. “I’m a businessman—you gotta take me serious.”
Rocky doesn’t like the term “label boss,” and avoids any question about it. The A$AP Mob, though, throws around words like “motivation” and “good brother” when they describe Rocky, Head Honcho.
“[He] makes us work harder, y’know what I’m saying?” says Ant, who notes that Rocky was the one who convinced him to rap. “He wanna do the right things and put his homies on and do things for his family, put his family in a better position.”
“It’s like playing with the Lakers when they was just winning,” A$AP Twelvyy adds. “All my bros is elite, and Rocky and Yambo set crazy examples for our brothers to just be great and be super creative.”
A$AP Lou says: “He knows how to roll out the red carpet. He knows how to put the blueprint out for you.”
The two names Rocky signed in his years since his last album and most recent beneficiaries of that Rocky Effect are Playboi Carti, the Atlanta star responsible for last year’s summer banger “Magnolia” and the recent Die Lit, and Smooky MarGielaa, the 15-year-old Bronx native who turned heads with his melodic features on A$AP Mob’s Cozy Tapes, Vol 2: Too Cozy. “I think they talented,” Rocky says. “Smooky’s young, full of energy. He reminds me of myself in so many ways. He reminds me of artists like Bobby Shmurda or something like that. And Carti, he a playboy. He up next. I think what he’s doing is an infusion of ambient, space sounds mixed with trap traditional music.”
Rocky first met Smooky at a club in New York City, and Carti at SXSW in 2015. Both are now part of his secret creative collective AWGE, but when I ask if AWGE is a label, and if Carti and Smooky are signees, he leans back in his chair, and moves his interlocked fingers up and down to the rhythm of his voice, as if to emphasize his point. “Don’t ask me that question again on camera.”
It’s unclear why AWGE needs to stay a secret, since Rocky reps the presumed acronym constantly. Right now, he’s wearing a diamond encrusted AWGE ring on the ring finger of his left hand, a green/white trucker hat with “AWGE” printed across the front, and a black track jacket with yellow piping on the sleeves from AWGE’s collaboration with Japanese brand Needles.
AWGE was first introduced to the world in 2015, but there still isn’t much that’s known about the mysterious agency. Rocky has said that the concept of starting a creative collective was partly inspired by Vice. “The way they had the infrastructure of Vice: the employees, the freelancers, the art, the edge—and the many moving components: film, music, magazines, etc.—it was an inspiration,” he said during an interview with the Rap Radar podcast. “I wanted to follow that format, that blueprint. I was never exposed to something like that. That’s what AWGE is.”
To help carry out his vision, he assembled a cabal of creators, artists, and stylists. Right now, AWGE is simply a list of names. The artist Robert Gallardo is officially credited as “creative” on the AWGE website, alongside stylist and former Complex editor Matthew Henson (fashion), Midnight Studios designer Shane Gonzales (design), the controversial Ian Connor (curation), Kamil Abbas (creative), Hidjifilms (video), Ben Baller (jewelry), Hec Lynas Frans (producers), and YGA (director). Beyond those names, it’s unclear who else is involved.
When I ask about A$AP Mob’s association to AWGE, Twelvyy is vague: “A$AP is AWGE. A$AP is on top, then there’s AWGE. It’s like being a Muslim, then it’s the Nation of Islam. We the big AWGEs”—a term I’ll hear some of Rocky’s friends use to describe themselves or others, as if there’s a hierarchy in the crew—“but it’s A$AP Forever.” Hidjifilms isn’t any more straightforward. During the shoot, he introduced me to a few of the guys lingering on set, who at one point surrounded and pointed their film cameras and VHS camcorders at us as if they were paparazzi, and said “this is AWGE.”
Together they direct music videos (Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” and Kodak Black’s “Jesus Piece”), orchestrate rollouts and marketing plans, design album artwork and packaging, create fully interactive installations (Rocky’s GUESS and Selfridges’ collaborations), and work with various fashion brands (including J.W. Anderson and Needles). “It’s a collective of young creatives from people who make music to people who draw, designers, all that,” Rocky says. “It’s just, for a lack of better words, a ghetto Google.”
Their goal, Rocky says, is simple: “Greatness, man. We just wanna make dope shit.”
Rocky was Skyping Matt Williams, formerly of influential streetwear line Been Trill and now designer of Alyx, when it happened: Kid Cudi popped up on the screen. Rocky couldn’t believe it, but he was finally meeting one of his idols, even if it was only virtually.
“He got on the camera and was like, ‘Yo what up? That song with you and ScHoolboy, ‘Hands On The Wheel,’ that’s tight,’” Rocky remembers. His eyes beam with excitement. “I was like, ‘Oh shit. Tight.’” Not long after, he met the hook maestro in person at a concert and was invited to his trailer to listen to a few unreleased songs from his upcoming album, Indicud. “I was like, ‘Yo. That’s crazy,’” he says. Then, roughly a year later, he and Cudi started working on music together. (They have a song together called “Brothers.”)
“The Cudder is the fucking man,” Rocky says. “I love Cudi, man. He’s dope as fuck. He’s a dope big bro.”
Perked up in his chair back at the studio, Rocky is talking about people who have inspired him. He brightens up at the mention of Cudi, of course, but also André 3000, and Nigo. “The first time I saw André 3000, I was weirded out by him,” he recalls. “I was a little kid. He had on these big furry camo goat Chronicles of Narnia pants with football shoulder pads. He might have fucked around and had a pot on his head. It might’ve been the ‘Rosa Parks’ [video]. I thought he dressed very weird, but somehow his music was enticing. It was intriguing. Before I knew it I was a fan. I love how he went from music to fashion to film.”
Nigo, the famed founder of Bape, almost made Rocky cry when the two first met. For his 25th birthday, Nigo surprised him with a Goyard trunk that had Star Trak and Nigo stamps all over it. “Nigo doesn’t even really speak English, but he was like, ‘I heard you like Goyard,’” Rocky says, doing his best Nigo impression. “He just dropped it on the table. Damn. That was crazy. I was like…” He hits his chest with his fists and pretends to cry as he mumbles some variation of what he once told Nigo.
“I think Nigo is just as important and significant to hip-hop as a Pharrell or a Slick Rick or Kanye—not as far as musical ability,” Rocky continues. “I would say how he influenced people’s style and how he just came through with a new way to rock shit.”
Ask Rocky why he admires André 3000, Nigo, and Cudi, and he explains it like this: “All of them influenced music, especially hip-hop, style and fashion. I fall in the light of all of those. They was doing it before I came in the game.”
Like his idols, Rocky’s never been a one-trick pony. Since his arrival on the scene in 2011, Rakim Mayers has made it his business to become hip-hop’s renaissance man. You know the story: He released his critically-acclaimed debut mixtape, Live.Love.A$AP, and soon after signed a $3 million record deal with Sony/RCA subdivision Polo Grounds Music, roughly half of which was to fund a group label called A$AP Worldwide. He’s put out two albums (the chart-topping Long.Live.A$AP and the psychedelic At.Long.Last.A$AP); recorded hit songs like “L$D,” “Wild For the Night,” and “Fckin’ Problems” with Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and 2 Chainz; appeared in the indie darling Dope; modeled in Ferragamo and Dior Homme campaigns; became the creative director of MTV Labs; and signed a long-term partnership with Under Armour.
Someday, he’d also like to design furniture. Maybe something that’s a blend of Tim Burton’s and Wes Anderson’s aesthetics with Alice in Wonderland. “I’m into mixing Victorian decor and pieces, like bronze and old trinkets, with new contemporary furniture from designers and artists,” he says. “I’m a Libra. The balance of both is appealing, it’s attractive.”
He also wouldn’t rule out taking on the role of creative director at a fashion house either, like Off-White designer Virgil Abloh, who was recently named men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton. “That’s amazing,” Rocky says of Abloh’s appointment. “That’s a great deal. He’s one of the people to represent and I think that was a dope decision.”
“I mean, listen, man,” he chuckles. “LVMH might have to holla at ya boy Flacko one time. Big AWGE is here, you heard? Come holla at the big AWGE and all that when y’all ready.” The possibilities are endless with Rocky.
Right now, though, Rocky’s number one priority is back to music. “I feel like I’m one of the best contemporary artists out right now,” he says. “My music is ahead of its time. The masses usually catch on two, three, four, five years later.”
A few weeks after our first sit-down, sprawled comfortably on a couch in Complex’s midtown Manhattan office, Rocky’s playing me new music off Testing. This time, he’s more relaxed, chatting about Nicki Minaj, virtual influencer Lil Miquela, and how much he loves Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy. Several times during the listening session, he raps to himself, and then to me, clearly excited about his new work. At one point, he and his stylist Matthew Henson break out in spontaneous dance.
“It’s a significant point and time in my career,” he says. “I have a lot of artists that are signed to me—big superstars, rockstars. I’m in other fields within my career. But I needed to circle back and show them this is where it started. This is the origin of my legacy and why I really do this shit.”
Rocky began working on Testing as soon as he released A.L.L.A in 2015. Testing, much like his other genre-bending music, is about experimenting with new sounds—just, this time, more “concentrated” and “calculated.” The lead single, “A$AP Forever,” for instance, features electronic artist Moby and an extensive sample of his 2000 song “Porcelain.” Last month, Rocky confirmed via Instagram that Dev Hynes—also known as Blood Orange—would be featured on the project.
“I’ve discovered sounds that I’ve never heard before, so I’m trying to manifest all of that into my new stuff,” Rocky explains. “Do you ever hear people when they describe that LSD experience and they tell you about colors that they never seen before? That’s what I’m trying to describe. It’s like the manifestation of drugs…” He chuckles. “...without being so vocal about it.”
Over several tracks, Rocky talks about the personal life experiences that have shaped him the last few years. On the psychedelic “Drops,” he raps, over acoustic guitar mixed with nostalgic hip-hop sounds (or as Rocky describes it “classical with hood shit”), about losing a loved on. “I wanted to make my emotional song without being too emotional,” he explains. “You know how Jay-Z said ‘I can’t see it coming down my eyes so I gotta let this song cry?’ That’s what it was. It’s like pain drops, tear drops, heartache, plight, demise... It’s just [about] losing people. Like, coping with losing motherfuckers.”
On “OG Beepers,” a story about his journey from selling drugs to becoming a rap star, he raps: “Posted on the corner like a trapper. Why he move his hands all around like a rapper? Why he move his pants up and down like a scrapper?”
“I realized my whole life I just wanted to be a rapper like everybody else, and this is my story,” he says.
Most of the album was produced by Rocky himself, but Hector Delgado, Kanye West, Dean Blunt, and Tyler, the Creator are also listed in the credits. Tyler, along with Frank Ocean, Rocky says, is one of his best collaborators. “Working with those two guys has been quite the experience,” he explains. “I’m glad that, on a creative level, everybody gets it. And not only that, those guys are elite. Those guys are geniuses.”
“Tyler’s new shit is crazy,” he continues. “Sonically, he challenged himself in a different way and it’s not even like Flower Boy… His next album is just a new wave.”
He also worked with Skepta, who produced and is featured on “Praise the Lord,” a song that Rocky says holds sentimental value. “It takes me back in a place, my childhood or past life that I can’t even explain,” he explains. “It’s nostalgic.”
The recording session with Skepta, Rocky says, was “regular” (“Most of the time, we be chillin’ so it’s always like we got music”). But for one memorable session, Rocky invited a college professor who studies psychedelic neuroscience and psychedelic-assisted therapy to a recording session with Skepta. “He came over to monitor us and record us while we were recording [music] under the influence,” says Rocky. “It turned into this weird testing, experimental situation. It was like, man, we keep talking about psychedelic drugs and I’m doing research on Einstein and Steve Jobs and how they say if a person can endure LSD it kinda qualifies them as a genius. I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ I needed more insight so I called a professional in to do it.”
Rocky spent a great deal of time recording in London—his home away from home—and Berlin, where he finished the album. “The energy there is crazy,” he says. “I feel like Berlin still has a big appreciation for hip-hop culture. The architecture, you still see graffiti everywhere, like real artists and real art, cobblestone roads. There’s nothin’ wrong with just taking that all in. It was perfect.”
Berlin was so perfect, in fact, that he got to spend time with some of his “favorite” people—MGMT, Dave Chappelle, Mos Def, Kanye West. His face still lights up now as he thinks back to the experience. While he won’t go into detail, he says he and Kanye worked on “a lot of music” together, including some intended for Testing. “Kanye turned the hotel we were staying at into a Yeezy compound,” he says. “He was designing sneakers in one suite, making music in one suite, and I was making music in my suite. It was crazy. We shut down the whole hotel.”
He’s eager to let fans hear the new music. “It’s an experience,” he says. “It’s jiggy. It’s lit. I’m tryna go platinum first week. Let’s get it. On some Cardi B shit times 12, you heard?”
He can’t be bothered by all the other silly shit, like questions about who stole his style—a question that’s followed him for his entire career. Just a week before our first sit-down at the studio in Brooklyn, Funk Flex tweeted, “Bunch of rappers stole Asap Rocky’s swag! Think they slick!” He followed it up with: “Oh? U want names? First name: Travis Scott !!! Who else y’all think?” Rocky responded to Flex’s original tweet with a simple statement: “FLVCKO FACT.”
Asked about it now, he’s visibly irritated that we’re still talking about it. “I don’t even think people stealing my style matters at this point,” he says, raising his voice. “I’m too old to be talking about who stole my style and who ran with… I don’t give a fuck about that. I’m just trying to make dope music, dope art, dope clothing creations. And I wanna mess with some dope females, if you know any. That’s it. Other than that all this other shit is other shit. You feel me?”
But do you feel like you are being appreciated or acknowledge for the things you have influenced?
“Yes,” he says flatly. “I’m so blessed to be here. I could be dead right now. I could be in jail. I could be poor. I could be homeless still. But I’m here and I’m talking to you, stoned, happy as ever. Y’know what I’m saying? I’m lucky to be doing what I’m doing, in the capacity that we do it in. We’re blessed. Never get that confused. I don’t think I would be sitting here after seven years of doing this, and doing a cover for Complex, if I wasn’t acknowledged for the stuff I did. I really do it for my trophies, and my trophies is those people who come up to you on the street who don’t want a picture but wanna tell you how you changed their life, or how a decision you did influenced their decisions in life, or just how much they appreciate you. That’s my Grammy, that’s my Oscar, that’s my everything. I’m just trying to show kids how to make it on their own without having to do the same old thing. And you could be yourself while doing this.”
Once again, at the end of our interview, Rocky pulls my notecards to flip the script and ask me questions. He wants to know my opinion of the new music I’d just heard, how he’s changed from “Peso” to “A$AP Forever,” what I look for in music. Music in general, not just his own. He’s dialed in, and very clearly genuinely cares about how I answer. It’s not the posture of someone who doesn’t care, deeply, about the work he’s putting into the world.
“I’m always gon’ do what I want when it comes to making music and shit,” he says. “I feel like to an extent, you gotta give a fuck.” He pauses, squints, and then hold his thumb and pointer finger a little ways apart.
“But maybe just a little bit.”