Over the course of one solo mixtape, one A$AP Mob album, and a few stray singles and guest spots, what, exactly, has A$AP Rocky revealed about himself? Give or take a detail: He is one pretty motherfucker. He likes purple weed and purple drank. He wears designer clothes. He imports cocaine. He has more money than you. He enjoys sex with women—especially so-called lesbians—and he enjoys it frequently. Few prior hip-hop hardasses described themselves as “pretty” (though surely Slick Rick must have at some point), but otherwise Rocky is far from trailblazing where content is concerned. The Harlem-raised, blog-touted, $3 million signee is more about style than substance. He excels in that respect, though; his agile, easygoing, in-the-pocket delivery and total aesthetic control have rendered him one of rap’s most exciting young stars—his records on discerning DJs’ decks, his hands on Lana Del Rey’s posterior. He has yet to say anything fresh, but his freshness is hard to deny.
Staking his success on being the most fashionable rapper around seems like a precarious game, but on Long.Live.A$AP, Rocky plays it well. His first proper LP is an aesthetic marvel, fully realized and unmistakably distinct. That’s all it tries to be, other than some mercifully brief (but mercilessly clunky) stabs at humor and gravitas. To approach the album looking for deep personal insight on the level of fellow Drake tourmate Kendrick Lamar would be a mistake, except perhaps as an anthropological study. A$AP Rocky openly campaigns not to be viewed as a conscious rapper, not that anyone would mistake him for Brother Ali. No grand statements either, just a time-honored storyline: Ghetto kid comes into money (opening lyric: “I thought I’d probably die in prison”), plunges into a dizzying life of excess, and declares himself the winner of an ever-escalating literal/sexual/monetary arms race, watching his back all the while. Before, even his roaches didn’t respect him; now, even his whores’ thighs are super-sized. “It feels good waking up to money in the bank,” Rocky boasts, but not good enough to keep him from worrying about guns at his window. More money means more fun, but also more problems. What else is new?
Fortunately, Rocky mostly sticks to what he’s good at: flaunting his exquisite taste. Like any fashion icon, his albums are defined by the sounds he chooses to wear, the collaborators he brings along as accessories, and how much charisma he has throughout. His talents are broader and more nuanced than that of DJ Khaled, a guy who’s made millions by getting a bunch of stars in a room and shouting his name loudly, but the function is similar. Rocky constantly reps his musical heroes, and unlike most bloggers and Datpiff fringe dwellers, he now has the clout to show off his refined palate by actually featuring such heavyweights on his record.
Thus, Long.Live.A$AP breezes through a who’s who of trendy production talents (Hit-Boy’s minimal melodicism, Clams Casino’s bleary sound tsunamis, Noah “40” Shebib’s soft-focus club bangers, even Skrillex’s brostep womp), building sound expansions on Rocky’s foundation of cloud-rap meets trunk-music meets pop. He even sings in falsetto over guitar arpeggios on the scene-setting title track. The parade of guest stars spans from radio titans Drake and 2 Chainz to indie diva Santigold to Black Hippy party-starter Schoolboy Q, who steals “PMW” (as in “Pussy, money, weed / It’s all a nigga need”) with giddiness to match Family Guy’s Quagmire. And on “1Train,” Rocky assembles an eye-popping tag team of recent next big things (Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, Big K.R.I.T.) to set the bar for 2013 posse cuts. On any number of blockbuster mixtapes, all that posturing would feel cold and calculated. It’s purposeful here, too, but warmly and adoringly so, not the product of a marketing team’s desensitized data, but rather one talented dude’s sense of what’s awesome. The results? “Extraordinary swag.”