The hip hop nation is in geopolitical disarray. Its biggest emerging stars of recent years — Drake and Wiz Khalifa — are from Toronto and Pittsburgh, respectively, while the city that birthed it barely registers as a blip on the national radar. Needless to say this has long been a sore point for New York residents. Sure, the Big Apple still has its heroes — Queens-bred Nicki Minaj blew up last year — but only by adopting a more Southern approach and collaborators. At home perpetual minor stars Jadakiss and Fabolous clog NYC radio playlists, street rap newcomers like Vado and Fred The Godson remain permanently trapped in the admirable-but-forgettable mixtape rapper mold and revivalists like Action Bronson and Roc Marciano get a fair share of critical love. But the phrases “talented enough” and “but sort of dated” seem applicable to all of the above in one way or another, with each of these rappers frozen in whichever era or trends that birthed them and hard wired to the machinations of a New York rap scene that barely exists anymore. Still much of the discourse surrounding these and other NYC rappers revolves around the city’s ever-desperate attempts to reestablish their position as a national force: Which rapper’s got next? Who among them can or will “save” New York? Presumably from skinny Canadians or Pittsburghians?
Harlemite ASAP Rocky (not to be confused with the downtown and phonetically similar but stylistically very different rapper Aesop Rock) is the latest entry into this conversation. A direct stylistic descendant of the last great (and too often unheralded) NY rapper and fellow uptown representer Max B, Rocky works in a similarly airy and drunk-or-lazy style that teeters between singing and rapping. But where Max, who is currently serving a 75-year prison sentence on murder charges, was bonded to the old model of underground distribution — CD-R mixtapes instead of Hulkshare links, shaky hand street DVDs instead of polished HD Youtube clips — to draw many ears from outside of his immediate locale, Rocky is naturally and almost sickeningly in-tune with the now of music distribution. The video for his breakout record “Purple Swag” looks like a Tumblr blog come to life, artfully shot and drenched in cool kid signifiers — the word “swag” (and, quite paradoxically, the words “fuck swag”), a lip syncing blonde girl in gold fronts, mixed race young and beautiful people doing young and beautiful people things like drugs and staring off into the distance.
The song itself is admittedly a little half-baked but nonetheless endearing, a two-minute tribute to Paul Wall, Slim Thug and Mike Jones’ 2006 hit “Still Tippin” and the prescription cough syrup that inspired that song. Rocky apes its cadence from Mike Jones and the production echoes the crawling orchestral vibe of the original. (Of course the most visible New York rap video in 2011 would be an ode to Houston rap.) The clip quickly amassed a couple hundred thousand views while being completely overlooked by the handful of old guard and mostly New York-based rap blogs that once dominated the internet rap conversation.
But for all of its buzz, “Purple Swag” is far from Rocky’s best record; that honor belongs to “Get High.” The video dropped last fall and was shot at a similar Beautiful Young People In Streetwear Who Probably Read Tumblr And Definitely Have Better Drugs Than You party, yet it fell on deaf ears, perhaps because it didn’t involve a white chick lipping the n-word (white girls armed casually with that word are so hot right now on the blog circuit). This is a shame because unlike “Purple Swag,” “Get High” is a fully formed song and not merely a soundtrack to a viral video. Guest rapper DeeFerg does most of the heavy lifting rapping, leaving room for Rocky to just float on the beat (lifted, randomly enough, from a Gnarls Barkley album cut). He self-harmonizes in a double tracked and emaciated wheeze and with a sort of understated sleaziness, filling space in much the same infectious manner as fellow Max Biggaveli disciple Wiz Khalifa. But Rocky’s more slithery than Wiz and his songwriting is less cloyingly anthemic but nearly as catchy. He has a knack for making out-of-key and almost-mumbled hooks (there are at least three here) feel incredibly big.
Surely it wouldn’t take much Googling to find the enthusiastic blogger or Youtube commenter claiming ASAP Rocky as the great hope set to instantly Bring New York Back. This is not that article. As of right now he simply stands as a small but promising hiccup in his hometown’s rap scene, the all too rare NYC artist that’s both modern and thoroughly engaging. Sometimes even the nation’s biggest city needs to take baby steps.
ASAP Rocky’s debut Live.Love.A$ap is set to drop in August.