Release Date: April 22, 2016
Label: A$AP Worldwide / Polo Grounds / RCA
A$AP Ferg was always on pace to, at best, be A$AP Mob’s Scottie Pippen — a versatile complement to A$AP Rocky, its trendsetting (and trend-borrowing) superstar and de facto boss. He was never quite cut out to be a star in his own right, but he helped to legitimize the Mob, which seemed little more than a clique of Rocky Yes Men and bottom-tier weed-carrier rappers before his emergence. As far as second bananas go, Ferg has become a rather accomplished one. After establishing himself as the prominent voice on the Mob’s Lords Never Worry compilation, his debut mixtape, Trap Lord, rather seamlessly became his debut album, and produced a colorful array of jams, in part because of the late, great A$AP Yams, one of the first elite curators of the web era (one of his crowning achievements being the ongoing rap and R&B mix series on his Tumblrs). “Yammy’s vision got us rich,” Ferg rapped on “Yamborghini High.” Ferg severely misses that input.
In the year and change since Yams’ passing in January of 2015, the A$AP Mob have functioned like a rudderless ship and Ferg in particular has suffered. Starting with the release of last year’s Future-assisted “New Level,” he has been throwing different songs at the wall and trying to see what sticks: the Lex Luger-produced “Let It Bang,” the Skrillex-produced “Hungry Ham,” and the Missy Elliott-featuring “Strive,” which sounds stylistically like an Azealia Banks reference track. Coincidentally, none of it has, covering too broad a spectrum with too much gusto. His second album, Always Strive and Prosper, is an autobiographical retelling of his journey to web stardom and the subsequent $3 million RCA deal that followed. Spliced with skits, Ferg spends 47 minutes explaining the A$AP motto, patching together odds and ends as exhibits of how hard he’s worked and how far he’s come to get here. But what he actually produces is a bloated mess, an album that’s too long and too convoluted to be good. In an attempt to do too much, it does nothing at all; Always Strive and Prosper doesn’t know what it wants to be.
A good portion of the record opts to tell specific stories about Ferg’s upbringing in Harlem (“Hungry Ham,” Let It Bang,” “Psycho,” and “Grandma”). Other songs take a more holistic approach, trying to make sense of fame in the context of his entire life experience, like on “Rebirth” and “World Is Mine.” The subtext throughout is that Ferg has come a long way from humble beginnings, but the storytelling is obtuse and occasionally even nonsensical. At one point, he shares snippets of a phone call with Chris Brown where they recount how the former used to sell handmade camo belts to the latter before he rapped, which then serves as a cringy lead-in for the second in a pair of sloppily written ballads. (In general, the skits are far more self-serving than they are necessary.) This is just one of the handful of cuts that are complete sonic misfits, with the stretch of “Yammy Gang,” “Swipe Life” (which sounds a bit like an “OG Bobby Johnson” rework), and “Uzi Gang” being particularly off-putting. On “Beautiful People,” he undercuts his guest Chuck D’s Black Lives Matter message by saying, “this is nothing political, this is so we be sync,” and then spouting absurdities like, “Transform from arms and bombs like Vietnam / Teach your kid how to eat and teach your kid how to farm.” This is anything but in sync.
If you were to overlook the glaring disparity of its sonic palette and the general scattered nature of the ideas and tracks on Always Strive and Prosper, there are still the undercooked raps, which often completely lack nuance. Some are basic. Many are just flat out stale. (“Your uncle smell like s**t like he got garbage in his ass” on “Hungry Ham”; “He was cut like Bruce Lee, but he didn’t know Karate” on “Psycho”) Ferg was never the sharpest rapper in the purest sense, and he does still deliver some solid flows that treat syllables as if they’re strung together by a thread like beads of a bracelet, but his turn toward introspection simply doesn’t pay off in his writing. As a jack-of-all-trades type, Ferg spreads himself way too thin, seeking eclecticism but only reaching erraticism. That isn’t to say that none of the songs hold up outside the context of this drawn-out personal odyssey. Some songs function well as singularities, particularly “New Level” and “Grandma,” which showcase a few of Ferg’s best qualities in spurts, but as a complete work, Always Strive and Prosper is a misfire that presses to be greater than the sum of its parts. As A$AP Ferg continues to search for his voice, his aesthetics are becoming so disparate that a streaming algorithm wouldn’t even sequence them together as a playlist.