Lauryn Hill Stars in Spirit on A$AP Rocky and Frank Ocean’s “Purity”
A$AP Rocky’s new album Testing was surprise released last night, and arguably the most notable song comes at the end of the album, when Rocky and the always elusive Frank Ocean connect for “Purity.” The record uses a slowed-down version of Lauryn Hill’s “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind,” from her MTV Unplugged performance, as the basis for a trudging, melancholic song about the pressures of fame and the lifestyle it creates.
Frank Ocean handles the song’s first verse, showcasing his skill-set as a rapper by weaving his rhymes in and out of Hill’s delicate guitar strums. It’s impressive, technically speaking, but rapping is not the reason anyone loves Frank Ocean. It’s like watching him do a lot of push-ups—there’s only so much enjoyment you can get from someone else’s display of endurance. Still, he’s perfectly wired in to the song’s sorrow, using his trademark nostalgic reflection and poetic word salads to rhyme about bittersweet glamor. He’s so good at that kind of writing that it’s still easy to take it for granted.
Rocky does his part admirably as well, revealing a deep-seated resentment and regret over what his success has cost him. He may not be the most impressive rapper, either, but his longing and feelings of survivor’s remorse quickly jump out at you: “Months past and months in between / Since me and my sister would speak / Not a call or visit in weeks, lost, seen her September ’16 / Lose someone every release, it feels like the curse is in me.” Here Rocky is referring to the death of his sister as well as past deaths that have revolved around his album releases, including that of his father and his guru A$AP Yams.
It’s a heartbreaking line. It’s hard having the kind of pain that comes from death so connected to one’s achievements. It’s a standout moment on a song that while good, is still afraid to be too earnest and vulnerable. “Purity” is what it’s like when someone wears sunglasses to hide that they’ve been crying, clouding its anguish around lines about drinking, doing drugs, and buying luxury items. It’s a protective shield, and it feels too easy—there’s enough rap songs that use excess and personal vices as ways of treating PTSD. It’s not uninteresting, exactly, but it’s been done a lot. If not for the “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” sample that underlining everything, the listener might miss the real heartache at the song’s center.
That sample does the job of doing the emotional heavy lifting. Lauryn Hill, even in absence, is as much a star on the song as the two men, heavily blurring the line between sample and feature. It is almost as if Rocky and Frank are reacting to her performance as much as they are rapping to it, her ethereal voice acting as a spiritual guide. It’s a reminder of Hill’s ability to pull both beauty and grief out of both herself and the listener.
You can stream the new song below.