“I’m named after Rakim, and I’m finally facing what it means: I was born to do this shit. And I hope I get to do it for a very long time.”
Last weekend, I finally found a copy of this record I’m supposed to be writing about. It wasn’t easy. NDAs or tight security or threats or who knows what kept a leak from happening, and I’m still new to this gig so I’m not exactly flush with connections.
When the dreaded leak finally and inevitably came, the industry showed us what they’ve learned in fifteen years of experience with digital leaks: absolutely nothing. What else can be done except panic, push the release date up, and move on? Not much, I guess. I mean, it’s not like the album cycle is designed to benefit the record label regardless of how an individual record sells, therefore removing any motivation at the corporate level to care about the performance of an individual record, but whatever. Keep spending those marketing dollars, guys. Anyway, it worked: they got my Spotify streams, for what those are worth. How’s that for ROI?
I ignored all the stuff about PacSun pulling one of Rocky’s shirts because none of the headlines mentioned him at first, and stupid shit happens all the time in America, if you haven’t noticed. It was Tuesday before I realized what happened and what was at stake, and by then every PacSun in the area was nervous as hell about the fallout and refused to even acknowledge the shirts had ever existed, much less allow me to slip them some cash in exchange for one. And all because of some damned idiots who see a t-shirt they don’t like on a holiday designed to overvalue and perpetuate an industrial war machine and immediately call for someone’s head.
I wanted that shirt. I still want it, and not purely out of spite, either. I love the design, I love black flags and upside-down flags and this shirt had both in one kickass economical design and I didn’t know it existed until the lot of them were already on their way to an undisclosed location to be buried or burned or probably just sold overseas. They’re on eBay for $5,000, for rap’s sake. All’s fair in capitalism until it ain’t, and the ones with the gold make the rules, and whatever. I really don’t go out of my way to mess with anyone else’s culture—especially not rabid flag-waving patriots—so it’s more than a little upsetting when they decide that it’s okay to reach out and stomp something that had nothing to do with them and was no more offensive to their way of life than what a stockbroker or a PAC chairman does every day—a hell of a lot less offensive, in fact.
Maybe you don’t care about that. You should, but maybe you don’t, and that’s fine. You care about the music. Fuck it, then. Let’s listen while Rome burns. At least it’ll burn in style.
You should have known this was coming. You should have known since “Goldie”, since the “Purple Swag” video, since “1Train” and “Fuckin’ Problems” and the low-key, high-impact collaborations with Skrillex, Santigold, Florence Welch—you could tell A$AP Rocky was someone concerned with all aspects of the final product, call it executive producing or whatever you want, that kind of talent is rare and it was obvious that he had it.
So now we’ve got A.L.L.A. You already know what it is. You should have seen it coming. But on this scale? Rocky loves to play it cool, he’s sly, his boasts sneak up on you, they’re not rooted in arrogance, they aren’t caricatures, he doesn’t shout, but he’s gonna lob some darts past your ears and let you do the work, he’s brilliant that way.
A.L.L.A. proves this. Right away you hear something heavy, something spiritual (you had to have known, the track is called “Holy Ghost”) and it nods to ghosts of other beats, this is the shadow gospel of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy but where Kanye shoots to kill, Flacko prefers to wave the white flag, sounding weary as all hell right until you drop your guard and then you’re dead before you know it. He’s playing a long game that few rappers can. “Holy Ghost” is about spirituality and desperation, subjects that have been explored to death everywhere, but nothing here sounds cliche. Next thing you know, the beat drops out and you’re hit with the hook, something you’re hearing for the first time at the end of the song. It works.
Rap is trending introspective. It must be time to thank Drake. Everyone—Kendrick, Big Sean, J. Cole, et al.—all the big releases this year are gazing at their navels from different angles. The rest of Young Money’s holding out so far, but somebody has to stay making ass-twitching bangers, right? Oh, by the way, Weezy is on this A$AP Rocky record. So is M.I.A., Schoolboy Q, Juicy J, UGK (Pimp C is here!), Yasiin Bey, Mark Ronson, and Danger Mouse. There’s more but I’m tired of typing all this talent. (Rod Stewart is listed as a feature, which is garbage. A sample is not a feature. I don’t care what kind of deal they had to make to get it cleared. You want feature credit, Rod Stewart? Get in the booth and sing something.)
It’s no coincidence that “Jukebox Joints”, sequenced at the halfway point, is the apex of A.L.L.A. and its most important line, the heaviest line on the whole record—I’m not going to spoil it for you—turns out to be the kindling for an incendiary entrance by Kanye West, who proceeds to spit World War III in the space of a minute, and he doesn’t spare anyone, the explosion hits immediately and you get a rare gem in the form of the frustrated Kanye grunt, the best grunt in rap—only because the second place Pusha T “yecccch” is ubiquitous—and it doesn’t stop there because Mr. West goes on to absolutely lose his shit, shouting out Rochelle who “ain’t wanna fuck me with the Polo / ay bitch you missed out, hashtag FOMO” in the kind of deranged voice he saves, again, for where it has the most effect. He’s been changing beats mid-song for a while now, that’s nothing new, but he changes beats in the middle of his own verse and you can feel the hubris in your blood, it’s so good he makes you feel like you’re the greatest rapper in the world. Hallelujah.
Beyond that, every song on this record has something to tell you. “L$D” is incredible, a straight-up dreampop slow jam with strong lyrics, a strong melody, and Rocky hitting a surprise falsetto that I didn’t know he had. “Everyday” is a Mark Ronson production (featuring Rod Stewart!) which has a feel I haven’t heard from him before, including a cranked up middle 8. “Back Home” is a tribute to A$AP Yams with Yasiin Bey batting cleanup. And so on.
The only point I want to make about A.L.L.A. is simple: it’s not fucking around. This is exceptional craft. It’s how you build something that people are going to listen to over and over, now and tomorrow and 20 years from now. Rocky is not afraid to let the music lead, to give vocalist Joe Fox long stretches of time, to keep the guest spots short and use them as colors in his production. M.I.A. has all of 3 lines but her feature is memorable because of the way it breaks up the song. Juicy J doesn’t sound like Juicy J on a track that he produced. Pimp C sounds like Pimp C, of course, and dated Sheryl Crow reference notwithstanding, it’s impressive among all the other features on this record to have a track with an unreleased Pimp C verse on it.
Look. This is what people get excited about. This is what people talk about when they talk excitedly about anything. This is the kind of emotional maturity that makes art worthwhile, and I hope A$AP Rocky gets to do it for a long time.