An abridged version of this review has been published by the blog Pretty Much Amazing, which you can read here.
While playing professionally for the Pittsburgh Pirates, pitcher Dock Ellis claimed he was under the influence of LSD when he threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres on Friday June 12, 1970. Self-reportedly, Ellis said he used LSD “two or three times” while visiting a friend in Los Angeles. Things got a little weird; time became irrelevant (thinking it was Thursday Ellis took a hit of the drug on Friday at noon), vision was drastically impaired (Ellis threw the no-hitter despite being unable to feel the ball, see the batter or catcher clearly), Richard Nixon appeared as the home plate umpire, and even Jimi Hendrix made a cameo as an opposing batter violently swinging his guitar. As expected many were skeptical about Ellis’ LSD claim, including Pirates beat reporter Bill Christine, who said he didn’t notice anything unusual with Ellis’ behavior or even the game itself. Although Ellis’ cursory drug-induced no-hitter story probably didn’t actually happen—and sadly not in the same colorful way it was told—it doesn’t really matter; he didn’t need a no-hitter to be a cultural trailblazer. Dock Ellis didn’t end up changing the world or “the system”, but at least he was able to confidently give it the finger.
In a way, I suppose you can say A$AP Rocky’s recent psychedelic explorations (check out his cheeky claim to having taken acid at SXSW, leading to multiple orgies in his mansion) should have given him an intense creative jolt, or at the very least a sense of mental liberation. Instead what we have gathered from his psychedelic experiences—as documented on his long-awaited, interminably delayed second studio album, At.Long.Last.A$AP—is they’re seemingly filtered through Coachella vibes: where the psychedelia is casually phoned in via fashion, where the delirious idea of surrounding veteran Rod Stewart with skittering trap rap production exists, and where the whole thing just goes on for way too damn long. (Clocking in at over an hour in length, the album is easily Rocky’s longest project to date.) I mean, this album isn’t even half as cool as Dock Ellis’ unbelievable LSD tale and that’s saying something because here’s the cool kid who once boasted “I be that pretty mothafucka” over knocking production. Everything about A.L.L.A.’s psychedelic quirks is too on-the-nose to praise and the album is totally arbitrary as far as rap goes. Rocky leaves virtually no wiggle room on the album for the listener to explore, and the entire thing is put together so haphazardly that even getting lost in the mess seems absolutely daunting and unrewarding.
Rocky doesn’t come off as much of a rapper these days either: He’s effortlessly crossed over into various platforms and endeavors, dabbling in fashion design, modeled with (now ex-girlfriend) Chanel Imane for Vogue, was featured in a Ferragamo ad campaign, landed the cover story of Complex, and he even made his motion picture acting debut this year. All of this by age twenty-six. Impressive. So it’s no wonder he seems to have lost any interest in a music career, at least one without the assistance of his mentor and best friend A$AP Yams. Yams, born Steven Rodriguez, sadly died this January of a drug overdose; leaving Rocky missing his “truest, bestest friend”. While Yams’ presence in Rocky’s career was mostly out of sight, often working behind-the-scenes, his leadership and guidance (not to mention his hustle and all-around awesome rap knowledge) led Rocky and the A$AP Mob to success, and inadvertently helped mold the palate of young hip-hop fans living in the information age. But despite his executive producer credits in the album’s liner notes (along with Rocky, Juicy J and Danger Mouse) and vibrant guest appearance on album closer “Back Home” (he closes the album with a declaratory “A$AP, bitch!”), Yams’ presence on the album is sorely lacking.
There’s no other way to cut it: Everything about A.L.L.A. is half-assed. From the baffling (albeit sweet gestured) album cover, to the often terrible mixing, A.L.L.A. is a star-crossed mess. But as previously stated, this is not a mess you would want to get lost in and don’t expect to leave with any consolation prizes either. Although Rocky has always been a relatively straightforward rapper, his music has often toyed with the idea of experimentation: From the New Age haziness and swaggering polemics of “Palace” from his watershed Live.Love.A$AP mixtape, to the uneven and only slightly less calamitous Long.Live.A$AP, which in retrospect housed some of his more ambitious musical tendencies. Here, experimentation is just co-opted by Rocky as mere window dressing—a high fashion accessory to be added to his lavish collection. Sure, Rocky may be more of a curator of taste than he is rapper and perhaps always has been—on his debut tape he sneakily cloaked himself in witch house’s crackle and reverb, and detoured to places like Houston, Memphis and Los Angeles for some needed inspiration—but on A.L.L.A. Rocky is entirely deceptive in his tastemaking.
A$AP Rocky—a rapper known more for his mass appealing boisterous charisma than intellectual depth or introspective lyricism—mistakenly packs At.Long.Last.A$AP with eighteen tracks and forcibly pads the run time at over an hour, which easily makes it his longest project to date. And practically all eighteen of these songs feel lethargic, packed like sardines with non-functioning rhymes that sound as if they’ve been etched out in a dusty notebook that never should have been opened in the first place. Take this little nugget from “L$D” (yep, it sure is another ridiculous acronym: Love x $ex x Dreams), a song where Rocky carries out this artistic clout: “I look for ways to say, ‘I love you’/ But I ain’t into makin’ love songs/ Baby I’m just rappin’ to this LSD.” Exciting stuff here, folks. But that’s not the only bit where his flawed lyrics and inescapable corniness are thrust to the forefront of the album. Take “JD”, a song which pays homage to James Dean (because, like, he was a cultural symbol of rebellion and disillusionment—just like Rocky thinks he is), where he raps: “I’m arguing with ’em, I’m done talking with ’em/ I order coffins for ’em, call the coroner for ’em/ Get a comforter for ’em, I did all you niggas beds/ I want all you niggas dead.”
A.L.L.A.’s self-mythologizing is a problem, and sneakily disguising it as a psychedelic experience doesn’t have anyone fooled for a second. Rocky, whose birth name is Rakim Meyers, told GQ, “I’m claiming ownership of my legacy. Look at it: At.Long.Last.A$AP. A-L-L-A. Like slang for ‘Allah.’ It’s the return of the god MC.” Rocky, sharing his name with revered golden age of hip-hop rapper Rakim, says he “was born to do this shit.” In addition, the mythology Rocky is promoting on A.L.L.A. comes across as juvenile, “super chill”, and not at all vexing, bruh. Not even the very death of A$AP Yams is outright acknowledged on the album, but kept close to callously enhance a specific mood. Rocky’s world on A.L.L.A. is hermetic and mostly uninviting; you come away knowing nothing new about him you didn’t already know before, and he therefor spends time on the album gossiping about female celebrities he’s had sexual intercourse with. Unless you’re a sucker for tabloid fodder or a 12-year-old girl, this one won’t interest you much at all. He also continues to wear his music influences and inspirations on his sleeve, at least when he name-checks them. There’s a song called “Max B” and another “Pharsyde”. If you’re unsure of either reference in 2015, then I suggest you do your Googles, ASAP.
Even if we were to give A.L.L.A.’s abysmal lyrics a pass, the production doesn’t help often, either. “West Side Highway” is bloated and tuneless—virtual death knells for rap music—while “M’$” is the sort of desultory, nonspecific production that gives rappers today a bad name. Some tracks on A.L.L.A. could be decent for a bargain bin DatPiff mixtape, like “Electric Body”, the latest in a series of A$AP Rocky and ScHoolboy Q collaborations, which finds Q experimenting with flows. Also included is the much-maligned “L$D”, his naïve ode to acid. Messily singing in an odd twang over a sample of “Ode to Billy Joe”, Rocky generally received praised from fans and critics for the song, as his heart is probably in the right place; even if his ears are obviously waterlogged. But to include it on a proper album is a poor move. The variety on A.L.L.A. is utterly scarce and dull—and just as on Long.Love.ASAP, lacking the much-needed percussive backbone—with the music ebbing in and out like a cyclical current and ultimately sweeping you far, far away rather than pulling you in. And on the subject of percussion in rap: Can we seriously just get some drums? Is that so much to ask from a rap album? I’m noticing this disturbing trend in music that, if you’re looking to challenge the supposed conventions of contemporary rap production, stray as far away as possible from drums, and feel free to embellish the shit out of your songs with reverb and “atmosphere”.
But not all of A.L.L.A.’s woes can fall solely on Rocky, can they? Sure, the production should’ve been a shoe-in for greatness, warranting the album repeated listens, but instead it kind of just lingers, and draws attention to Rocky’s flaws as a rapper. The features on A.L.LA. while impressive on paper are a mixed bag overall in quality: World’s collide on “Fine Whine” when M.I.A. and Future deliver equally cockamamie verses (M.I.A.’s “Tell your new bitch to go suck a dick” ad nauseam refrain is quite cringe-inducing), Kanye West barely lets off a decent verse during the last seconds of “Jukebox Joint”, UGK (yes, including the late great Pimp C) join Juicy J on “Wavybone” in which Pimp spits some knowledge from the past for the present (“You think I’m startin’ over, bitch, I ain’t never stop/ Poppin’ the trunk, and testin’ the pills/ Don’t give a fuck bout where you’re from/ Don’t give a fuck bout how you feel”), and then there’s the mysterious Joe Fox who appears on five of A.L.L.A.’s tracks. And where the hell is A$AP Ferg? It’s quite telling when the brief three minutes of “Kissin’ Pink” coupled with Ferg’s mind-bending impressionistic verse from his Live.Love.A$AP tape permeates more genuine feelings of psychedelia and the subsequent thrill that it often comes with than anything we hear on A.L.L.A.
Oh, right, then there’s this enigmatic Joe Fox character. Well, as the legend goes, Rocky and his entourage were in London wandering the trendy Soho streets one early morning when he met a random street performer. This street performer was singer/songwriter Joe Fox. According to Fox, when he met Rocky he was homeless, selling mixtapes anywhere and to anyone so that he’d have “money to live somewhere”. Fox inevitably attempted to peddle his CD to Rocky, but instead is asked to perform a song. This ultimately blossomed into a working relationship between Fox and Rocky, and the rest is history. Hooray. Unfortunately, however, for us is Fox’s contribution to A.L.L.A. isn’t anywhere near as interesting as his come-up story. Whenever he appears on a track the audio quality is so distractingly bad that it sounds as though he’s being recorded via video chat. And not to mention his completely uninteresting vocals and listless guitar strumming that comes with that. I mean, seriously, Fox’s musical “chops” are some seriously hackneyed shit you’d find buried deep on YouTube or painfully being rejected on a music competition show like The X Factor. It’s another kid with a guitar mumbling sweet nothings; you’ve heard it before.
Still, Rocky can, at times, be an engaging figure that radiates charisma when he wants—if not the work ethic—to grab the mantle just dangling above his head. The Kanye co-produced “Jukebox Joints” is a lovesick, muddled cry. He raps: “Trippin’ on how I shifted pop culture/ Changed hip-hop on ya, smoking like a rasta was my pop’s culture/ I be damned if I die sober/ I’ll be sure to visit Pac for ya”. It’s perhaps one of the few moments of growth on At.Long.Last.A$AP. Even the simplistic “Canal St.”, a song about the New York City street, has spirit, even some uplift, in its battle-cry sloganeering courtesy of enigmatic underground rapper Bones. From the beginning it seemed as if Rocky’s songs had ideas and that those ideas had a vision (assuming we can all ignore the dreadful Skrillex collaboration), woven smartly with a bookish, booming flow. And suddenly, as his profile grew and his endeavors shifted outside of music, his musical output faltered. “Multiply”, a song that was shared prior to A.L.L.A.’s release isn’t included here, offering some a glimmer of hope that maybe Rocky is holding that sort of music close for his future projects. Still, the apathy here signals some sort of finality for Rocky as a bona fide threat within contemporary rap music. Whether it’s the end of a chapter or a book remains unclear.