Is A$AP Rocky’s Free Mixtape Worth $3 Million?

You can’t divorce A$AP Rocky from his hype. The Harlemite became an overnight internet sensation in a near-literal sense on the strength of his two Youtube hits — Houston homage “Purple Swag” and the hazy “Peso” — and little else. Things snowballed from there: The man who will save New York rap! A Drake namedrop and supporting tour slot! Cool hats and jackets! A white girl lipsyncing the n-word, an Odd Future beef, $3 million dollar RCA deal, a soundboy beatdown, a chat with Dave Chappelle about how you shouldn’t beatdown soundboys! (Good advice, btw.)

Rocky eventually needed to produce a body of work to justify this cycle. Live.Love.A$AP, which was released on Halloween after a couple weeks’ delay, is that justification, and it reveals what we already suspected: A$AP Rocky isn’t a great rapper. He’s also not a bad rapper by any stretch. You can see him evolving into something far better than “not bad” one day. But for now it’s not enough to survive being graded on the downward curve the media machine has dropped on him. Rocky’s charismatic, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to translate this charisma to tape. His lyrics are frequently under-baked. He repeats the opening line of “Peso” — “I be that pretty motherfucker” — several times. His vocal presence is frequently strained or limp, and his flows are sometimes too ambitious for his ability.

The album is so deeply littered with guests from his A$AP crew that it’s difficult to even tell when the star is rapping. Part of this is the chameleon tendencies of everyone involved. He and his friends slide between pre-established rap styles, sometimes even midverse: Lord Infamous Memphis double time, fellow Harlemite Max B‘s drunken singalongs, Drake’s strained lyrical gymnastics, the spacious phrasing of Compton’s MC Eiht, Fat Pat‘s slow-mo Houston croons. It’s not a fusion but a series of genre studies, and it makes a curious case against regional and generational divisiveness in hip-hop: when you put all these disparate styles the same pot, they really aren’t as different as they’ve been made to be.

“They’d better be betting on growth.”

And then there’s Rocky. When A$AP dropped, the New Yorker was placed unfairly and uncomfortably in the lunchroom table lineage of West Coast blog darlings Lil B, Odd Future and Kreayshawn. He shares just a few things with them: internet savvy marketing, coverage from the same media outlets, high-gloss video productions and fashion-forward sensibilities. But rather than use his debut to reject the comparisons, he wraps himself in them. Lil B The Based God, who single-handedly cracked the skull of hipster-hop open last year and left us with all this weirdness good or bad, looms particularly influential. Though Lil B might be the only rapper on earth that Rocky’s rap style owes nothing to, Live.Love.A$AP could not exist without him.

Frequent Lil B producers Clams Casino (of Nutley, NJ) and Beautiful Lou (of San Antonio) account for about half of the production here. (Ty Beats, the prodigious teen behind those “Purple Swag” and “Peso” is notably absent otherwise.) Clams refines a very specific dynamic of warm and cluttered fuzz, roughly providing the blueprint for most of the other producers featured here. The warmth suits Rocky well; the clutter only highlights his deficiencies of presence. Lou, who’s waded in fog before, makes two mature and traditional contributions beholden to his Texas roots than much of his earlier work. “Trilla” funnels a Das Efx (!) sample through DJ Screw blues funk and the bouncy “Kissin’ Pink” reveals an artist who has evolved beyond that Clammy haze. These, along with the contributions from regular-ol’-Southern-rap producer DJ Burn One are among the standouts on a tape full of jawdropping production displays. Even on the production end of things Rocky is tasteful but, again, soluble.

For the time being, Rocky’s sacrificed himself as the most photogenic cipher for this micro-movement. Live.Love.A$AP fails as a vehicle for Rocky’s personality, but it succeeds as a genre survey, sitting comfortably in the canon next to Main Attrakionz‘s similarly formless 808s & Dark Grapes 2 from earlier this year. Peel away its context and you’d have a promising little internet release, but it’s mindboggling to think that a corporation is putting millions of dollars behind something so lo-fi and meandering. They’d better be betting on growth. Rocky may be a pretty motherfucker, but he’s not pretty enough to sell this sound to the mainstream. [Download Live.Love.A$AP here.]

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