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A$AP Rocky, ‘LONG.LIVE.A$AP’ (A$AP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA)

A$AP Rocky
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: January 15, 2013
Label: A$AP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA

Perhaps no rapper of the social-media era earned a better return on investment than A$AP Rocky. In 2011, with just a pair of videos — “Purple Swag” and “Peso” — the Harlemite became the instant poster boy for post-regional, post-generational hip-hop. Fusing the fashion of ’90s West Coast rap with the sonics of ’00s Southern rap (and the swagger and fog of ’10s Internet rap), the clips slowly racked up millions of views across the cool-kid blog network, earning Rocky a (reportedly) million-dollar deal with RCA/Sony.

None of this happened in a vacuum, of course. Those tracks, and the October 2011 Live.Love.A$AP mixtape that followed, came at the crest of a sea change in underground hip-hop, as regional-rap-obsessed online addicts like Lil B, Spaceghostpurrrp, and Main Attrakionz reshaped the genre into a bizarre, lo-fi data dump. DIY in the extreme, they mostly operated without PR or label support, instead sprawling their catalogs across homemade YouTube clips and slapdash free-download collections with sub-MS Paint artwork. Live.Love.A$AP, which boasted cameos from Main Attrakionz and production from both Purrrp and a few of Lil B’s core producers, was important mostly for how well it articulated and branded these impulses.

Whereas his predecessors and collaborators built their careers on roughness and volatility, Rocky remains a polished product. He takes fewer risks, and puts a greater emphasis on packaging. His videos and album art tend to glisten with the sheen of glossy fashion rags, his vocals are mixed properly, and his projects are infrequent, album-oriented affairs (even when he calls them mixtapes and gives them away). He’s an easily digestible entry point for avant-garde-averse hip-hop traditionalists and the rap-uninitiated writ large, but even so, his next move was to sit on the shelf for 18 months. His media presence notwithstanding, we heard very little music from Rocky in 2012. The single “Goldie” failed to convert his foggy and screwed sound into a pop format, and he only appeared intermittently on Lords Never Worry, August’s dreary and forgettable mixtape from his A$AP Mob collective.

But at year’s end, he finally broke out of the blog-buzz slum with an actual mainstream hit, “Fuckin’ Problems.” It’s a good single, a playful riff on the malleability of the word “fuck” (of course, only implied in its radio edit) set to a lithe electro track co-produced by Drake architect Noah “40” Shebib. But it’s an A$AP Rocky record in name alone, and not just because it’s uncharacteristically lively. Rocky just isn’t that present in the literal sense, serving as the principal vocalist for a mere 40 seconds of its four minutes, the space between either filled with or drowned out by more bankable radio stars: Drake, 2 Chainz, Kendrick Lamar. It’s not exactly a testament to his bankability, or his label’s good faith — such star-slathered singles are usually a last-ditch attempt to salvage an otherwise unsellable artist, and a clear warning sign for an impending train wreck.

The good news about LONG.LIVE.A$AP, his proper, full-length, major-label debut, is that it isn’t nearly as compromised or horrible as it could’ve been. Or not all of it, anyway: “Problems” precedes a short stretch of mid-album stumbles, including “1 Train” (a flatlined true-school posse cut that features every rapper you’ve ever read about on a blog being outshined by Danny Brown) and “Wild for Tonight” (his much-awaited/dreaded Skrillex collaboration). That one’s especially a mess: Skrillex doesn’t know how to structure a rap song, and Rocky doesn’t know how to build momentum for a club record. (Of course, it’s probably also one decent remix away from being a crossover smash in the age of LMFAO.)

Otherwise, the album more competently echoes its mixtape predecessor — all ethereal soundscapes, part Goth, part New Age — but to a less rewarding and consistent end. Clams Casino, who handled a large chunk of Live.Love (and who more or less invented Rocky’s preferred production sub-genre by rinsing out Imogen Heap vocals on Lil B’s “I’m God“), returns with two disappointingly thin takes on his own formula — he seems to be entering the paint-by-numbers, late-’90s DJ Premier stage of his career. Soufien3000, another early collaborator, contributes “Pain,” which sounds like an Odd Future throwaway from 2010. Other tracks come closer to Rocky’s earlier highs — angelic vocals skitter brilliantly on “Fashion Killer,” and horns swirl on “Suddenly” like some sort of demented and stripped-down modernization of ’90s Pete Rock — but such moments are rare, and innovations are nonexistent.

But Rocky was never really capable of holding that mantle — he’s not an experimentalist, but an inheritor of experiments. His greatest trick is to dissolve into a blindingly psychedelic beat; when his producers fail to deliver, they draw his glaring flaws to the forefront. To be fair, he’s improved as a rapper, downplaying the blatant Bone Thugs and early Three 6 Mafia flow-jacks of his earlier work in favor of a more relaxed and drawn-out cadence that falls somewhere between Wiz Khalifa stoner drawl and fellow Harlemite Ma$e’s jiggy bluster, but not enough to compensate for his vast deficiencies as a writer. From a pop perspective, his hooks are laughably simple, never infectious, and often DOA, and he tends to structure his verses in ways seemingly designed to kill momentum, most obviously when he drops into a played-out, Screwed-down vocal range at inopportune moments, and for entire verses.

He’s equally deficient as a more traditional rap lyricist: His vocabulary is limited, his concepts thin, his persona over-reliant on empty rags-to-riches-to-bitches clichés. He struggles to form even small fragments of coherent narrative without falling back on poorly constructed religious imagery or an almost Game-like tendency to incessantly name-drop — “It’s the gold teeth, French braids / Call me Project Pat,” “Painting vivid pictures / Call me Basquiat, Picasso,” etc. There’s no personal narrative or identity here to compensate for the hollowness of his craft. In real life, he’s a naturally charismatic human — a warm and affable “pretty motherfucker” when the camera is rolling — but none of that translates on record. By LONG.LIVE‘s end, we know everything that Rocky likes, but no idea what he’s like.

This is all relatively uncharted territory for rap music, a genre built on larger-than-life personalities and finely crafted origin stories rather than faceless brand management and visual refinement. It’s not a coincidence that Rocky has been particularly well received in electronic music circles, where semi-anonymous purveyors of highly stylized aesthetics flourish. And maybe that specific crossover is pertinent when considering how to listen to A$AP Rocky. When consumed passively, as ambient music, his conceptual flaws recede into the fuzz of his production, a raw mush of sound that provides an appropriate and occasionally great backdrop for refreshing your Tumblr dashboard, at least until it delivers a more engaging artist to look at.