Sometime ago I read a wonderful little article on Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini entitled “A Cinema of Poetry” and in that said article writer Patrick Rumble makes mention of Pasolini’s first visit to New York City in late 1966. It’s not so much that it was Pasolini’s first voyage to the Western metropolitan that was noteworthy about the article, rather that in the context of the antiwar movement and the struggle for civil rights the then 44-year-old filmmaker rediscovered a spirit of political and cultural renewal that he had experienced only once before: during the final months of World War II, when his native Italy (and its partisans) rose up against the Nazi and Fascist forces, in what was in itself an internalized conflict. Why do I bring up this seemingly irrelevant factoid about a deceased Italian filmmaker? Well, it’s actually a lot more pertinent to this review than you might ever imagine. You see, Pasolini found the spirit of resistance in the newly formed Black Panthers he met while out in Harlem, in members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society, as well as various counterculture groups of the 1960s. Through this visit and subsequent rediscovery Pasolini believed that—unlike post-war era Europe—America “is about to begin” and “on the eve of great things”. And Pasolini’s time in NYC was certainly no farce as his faith in poetic creativity was revived and he would eventually go on to create some of his very best work thereafter. Such works that would not go according to preconceived cinematic conventions—opting for a more “deliberately naive” approach to cinema—one that would be “like witnessing the invention of a new language” as fellow Italian filmmaker (and Pasolini protégé) Bernardo Bertolucci had eloquently put it. Pasolini’s output was, at the time, a profoundly original mode of filmmaking, which, like most innovations, was not immediately appreciated.
So, how does all of this tie into A$AP Rocky’s debut full-length album, Long.Live.A$AP? Is it because he’s from Harlem? Wears high-end clothing from bigwig Italian fashion designers? Perhaps in the very way Rocky approaches and formulates hip-hop. While I can sit here and quizzically berate mainstream artists all day, it’s far too easy and emotionally draining. Nevertheless, the independent world of hip-hop isn’t quite in a state of creative utopia either. If anything, the characters devised in the independent circles are possibly even less pertinent than that of their revered mainstream counterparts. The principal problem of the indie/underground is it’s, to put it bluntly, corny. It’s corny because they abandon the grammar of hip-hop and fail to replace it with anything better. That’s like trying to build a house while ignoring the history of architecture. You see, hip-hop is all about using the conventions in fresh ways and redeploying signifiers. That’s something that indie/underground hip-hop doesn’t seem to comprehend. Some of the wunderkind of this contemporary indie scene include Tyler the Creator, Kendrick Lamar, SpaceGhostPurrp, and the aforementioned Rocky. Their amassed flaws lie heavily on their young age, with the average age of these four stalwarts being 22-years-old. Attached to their young age is each individuals evident lack of maturity and self-identification; they may have gathered an astronomical amount of valuable knowledge on hip-hop culture from the hours they spend lurking the internet but that doesn’t muster any original thought.
A$AP Rocky’s (the self-proclaimed “Harlem rapper with a Houston flow”) much talked about 2011 mixtape Live.Love.A$AP is filled with an abundance of references to lean (a concoction which includes a prescription-strength cough syrup mixed with a soft drink), gold teeth and chopped and screwed vocals—such that a person unaware of Rocky’s upbringing would likely assume he was from the denoted Houston. And while being heavily influenced by different regions and scenes might be typical for other musicians, this isn’t quite the case for rappers. Hip-hop has historically been a divided genre in which its artists have proudly (and perhaps stubbornly) represented their neighborhoods, very rarely venturing far musically from their hometown, let alone into entirely different geographic areas. Some ten years ago it would have been blasphemous for a rapper from New York, the birthplace of rap, to release such a distinctly “Southern” mixtape. But, of course, the internet seems to have all but eliminated the geographical dividing lines in hip-hop music. The issue is that A$AP Rocky doesn’t bring anything new to the table of Southern hip-hop. In fact, he doesn’t even do Southern hip-hop correctly.
Like America for Pier Paolo Pasolini, A$AP Rocky sees plentiful in the regions below the Mason-Dixon line. But where Pasolini saw artistic inspiration in hippies singing peace and love songs to neo-Nazis, Rocky sees exploitation in those styrofoam cups and messianic fluids. There was no pilgrimage or rite of passage for Rocky, only a quick click or two of the mouse. Where Pasolini would never abandon his dedication to the victims of modernization (the peasants, the subproletariat) that is precisely where the heirs of Southern hip-hop would refuse to adapt to the ways of the ever growing marketability of rival coasts; maintaining a strong, deep rooted loyalty, which were largely misunderstood by their contemporaries. This would prove to be an appeal to the impressionable Rocky who, despite growing up in NYC, would quickly grow tired of his Harlem neighborhood rap scene’s excessively caked up materialism, glossy production, endlessly changing trends and rapidly increasing dog-eat-dog mentality. Shifting his musical attention to the rarely seen and much maligned Southern hip-hop was, in part, an act of resistance that was at once juvenile and curious. Not identification.
So when A$AP Rocky released the Hit-Boy produced “Goldie”—the first single from his debut full-length album Long.Live.A$AP—and intentionally leaked the Lana Del Rey appearing “Ridin’” he showed visible signs of taking his wildly popular appropriated Southern rap to the pop charts. The artificial assimilation Rocky makes on Long.Live.A$AP, is unsurprisingly quite similar in nature to the regional miscegenation that made up Live.Love.A$AP; possessing a minutia of music knowledge, improperly cultivating (even a basic) song around the intended formula, disregarding fundamental building blocks in a specific style, and relying heavily on his fetishizations than simple chops and attention to details. And though these should be compliments for anyone else playing music in the 21st century, it isn’t for a rapper like Rocky. Why? His music is missing a chromosome, an essential chromosome that would enable his musical DNA to flourish, spread its wings. Rocky, like so many rappers and musicians living in the internet age, are too preoccupied with the pretense.
But moreover than the chocolate mixing with the peanut butter, because granted we’ve seen hip-hop and pop married to great success, is A$AP Rocky’s inability to upend established paradigms. The genre-bending makes for a messy output with there being more of an exaggerated emphasis put on the guest appearances than ideas. Long.Live.A$AP is an audacious study in feigning sincere enthusiasm and emotion through maximalist posturing; an album so precisely blemished by a catchall product of learned behavior and attitude via aggregated social media (Tumblr, Instagram, et al). Rocky’s shtick is so woefully blasé here it makes his breakout 2011 mixtape Live.Love.A$AP appear like an intellectual diatribe of forward momentum youthful vitriol. Long.Live.A$AP was supposed to, according to Rocky’s press release, show his capabilities and how much of an artist he is, “not just a rapper”. Spoiler alert: Frankly, he has nothing to show for it with the exception for those few moments where he flexes his innate production selection instincts. Again. However, even in the one department where Rocky proves his self-worth as an ‘artist’ has gotten considerably lazy and uninspired.
The album’s two memorable moments aren’t even present on the standard version, making only late appearances on the deluxe edition. The first of the two is “Jodye”: a blaring, ignorant, and urgent track that is catapulted by an archetypal trunk-knocking beat that is often associated with Southern hip-hop—albeit menacingly horror themed—and A$AP Rocky’s gimmick of trampolining off the last syllable working to the song’s mid-paced wind-and-pull syncopation. Listening to the song over again, I couldn’t help but feel that if this is what the standard version of the album had gone for Rocky’s glaring problems could have been swept under the rug, even if temporarily. The second track is “Ghetto Symphony”: a track smartly capitalizing off the imperativeness of “Jodye”. While at first it is perhaps in tune with the ‘mood’ of Long.Live.A$AP (courtesy primarily of the lush, emotive Imogen Heap vocal sample) switches lanes like a high pursuit white Ford Bronco. Gunplay’s guest spot benefits from the trap-style hi-hat hits a second before he pounces on the beat like a Florida swamp alligator. A fine one-two punch, barring A$AP Ferg’s comically absurd, head scratching verse.
A$AP Rocky—a rapper known for his mass appealing boisterous charisma rather than introspective depth as a rapper—attempts to show his consciousness as a lyricist on Long.Live.A$AP. and dare I say to awkward and borderline embarrassing results. It’s an unnecessary and odd route for him to go in but when Clams Casino’s woozy/glitchy soundscape production influence (though Clams produced a mere two tracks) is evidently all over these beats the variety is utterly scarce and dull—lacking the much-needed percussion backbone—with the music ebbing in and out like a cyclical current and ultimately sweeping you far away rather than pulling you in. So as a result Rocky is forced to step up, try hard(er) to impress the listener and it’s revealed immediately that it isn’t exactly a chalked up plus for the appeal to the album. Or Rocky’s charm in general. Each song is like a blank canvas onto which the listener must dutifully superimpose his or her own interpretation. But while it might be free of meaning (and irony), it’s chock-full of pretense.