If there's one thing you can say about A$AP Rocky, it's that describing him in less than three sentences is nearly impossible. His government name, Rakim Mayers, was reportedly inspired by esteemed lyricist Rakim, but Rocky eschews traditional punchlines in lieu of aesthetics. He regularly disregards what's hot at the moment, only to usher in his own de facto statement of importance; then that becomes what's hot. He's just all sorts of eclectic, and he's carved a career out of it. MTV rushed to name him its creative director early last year. And that's just the surface of his character; he's a hot air balloon powered by news headlines.
"A$AP Forever" came out quietly last week (April 4) and, thanks to Cardi B holding the internet hostage with the release of Invasion of Privacy and Drake attempting to snatch relevancy from under her with the release of "Nice for What," it received the dreaded first glance treatment. The general gist of online talk was that Rocky "fell off." What started in 2011 with the genre-bending Long.Live.A$AP and most recently continued with At.Long.Last.A$AP had finally run its course. But why is that so?
Viewing the video "A$AP Forever" and listening to it without any visual aid are two entirely different experiences. The song itself is a concoction crafted from the finest Clams Casino-emulators, bereft with anti-bass and haunting violin strums that wouldn't sound out of place during the last wave of a boss fight on Final Fantasy 8. After waiting for what feels like an eternity for the beat to drop, it crashes through the speakers, leaving behind a sullen drum to thump throughout the nearly 4-minute song. It's not trap bass, nor is it pop radio shrivel. It sits comfortably in between, for better or worse. As a single, it'll be hard to get placed because of its uniqueness.
Watch the video below and wave after wave of realization will wash over you as you take in the aesthetic that Rocky creates. A dizzying camera swing repeats throughout the visual, along with rapid zooms and cuts to produce long shots that ultimately disorient the viewer but, taken into account with the sullen nature of the song, maybe that's what it's for. It's a package experience; after all, you wouldn't go to McDonald's and get a burger without fries, would you?
No matter which way you consume the experience, you'll undoubtedly be left with more questions than answers. What's Rocky's endgame with this style? How will this tie into TESTING? Just what is this new style about?
The conversation surrounding Rocky always devolves into understanding, or being confused by, his artistic choices. But since the beginning of his career, he's made it clear that he never wants to fit in. Take "Purple Swag" for example. A New York kid cosplaying in Houston over a southern-style beat? That wouldn't have even made a lick of sense prior to 2011. In the video for "Wassup," we see demonic pentagrams, women painted to resemble U.S. dollars, and diamonds being exchanged by French kissing. None of these things are understandable, but he did them anyway.
On "Long Live A$AP," the single from his debut album of the same name, Rocky raised the hairs on listeners' necks with his sensual singing on the chorus. Shocked listeners couldn't believe that after a critically acclaimed debut mixtape, they hadn't known that he could sing, or even that he wanted to. While it didn't have the same groundbreaking impact as his follow up singles "F**kin' Problems" and "Goldie," it was symbolic of the guessing game that he plays in the studio. Like throwing up 52 cards, picking up four random ones, and implanting those stylistic decisions on wax.
At.Long.Last.A$AP introduced a druggier, creepier Rocky, if that's even possible. Lead single "L$D" featured Rocky as close to Hendrix as an emcee could get, hazily moping in the spaces between the hazy production like an addled brained addict, searching for his next fix. The reception was further muddled, fans began to pull away. Where was the frenetic rapper from Long.Live.A$AP that flipped flows like flapjacks? Was he being replaced before their very eyes?
It's been nearly three years since At.Long.Last.A$AP came out and Rocky's only grown older and wiser. In the downtime, he's jumped on a few tracks for a few of music's larger than life personas in Lana Del Rey and Famous Dex, and he's been prepping for the release of his heavily-anticipated upcoming album TESTING. Rocky jumped to SoundCloud with the release of "☆☆☆☆☆ 5IVE $TAR$" and "Above," both captioned "TESTING COMING SOON" and "THIS IS JUST A TEST." Both flipped our expectations of Rocky's ability to deliver the unknown, being sonically similar to his earliest, rap-heavy works than anything of late. Even when we expect the unexpected, he still manages to surprise us.
It's with this blank slate that we head into A$AP season and await the release of TESTING. At every turn, he's reinvented himself, so predicting what'll come next is like attempting to determine the weather three weeks out. He embraces incongruence like rappers do the streets; whereas the latter follow the rules and regulations to fit into the mold, Rocky goes off-kilter. It makes him unbreakable. Dangerous, even.
Towards the end of "A$AP Forever," Rocky's vision takes a decidedly more atmospheric turn. He falls to the ground in slow motion, only to barely awaken in what looks like The Sunken Place. His body incessantly twirls around in darkness as the lucid vocals of guest singer Khloe Anna enrapture the sonic scenery. Now, inexplicably clad in a car crash dummy's duds, we see quick snapshots of scenes related to his secretive AWGE collective and other nighttime locales in New York. It's something to be felt, more than understood. He's a conduit for experimentation that the forces-that-be let loose. He's designed to try things out and fail in the process because, well, someone has to do it. Perhaps the brief scene is self-aware; the middling reception of the song could be the result of the tune itself being a crash test.
And that's the beauty of TESTING. It's a trip into uncharted waters, areas that only Rocky is able to navigate. Back in October, Rocky told GQ that his new album is all about exploring the unexplored. "People are scared to test new sounds, so they go with what's current 'cause it's the easy thing to do," he said. "I prefer to experiment and have my crowd grow with me and to reach new crowds. I don't just rap – I actually make music." If his recently released promotional single says anything about the album, it's that Rocky's unhinged. Whereas before he experimented under the guise of just making music, now he's openly declaring it. There could be country music instrumentals up there featuring Rocky yippee-ing from here to the moon. Also, Rocky could handle the production for it (after all, he did heavily hint at releasing a producer project called Beauty and the Beast: Slowed Down Sessions Vol. 1 in 2013). Whatever it may be, recognize it for what it is and judge it accordingly. You wouldn't measure the worth of a Lil B mixtape in intelligent punchlines, would you?
I'm tempted to call Rocky a genius that's well aware of the intricate web of creative deceit that he's weaving, but I'm not too sure that he's in control of it anymore. Maybe his genius comes from acting on impulse, sporadically piecing together music that happens to sound good. Or, maybe he really does plan everything out down to the smallest detail. His off-kilter nature makes predicting what his endgame is nearly impossible.
We can pull one conclusion from "A$AP Forever," and that is that we don't have a clue what TESTING will sound like. But that's been the case with every tune we've heard from him since he came out. He constantly morphs his sound between songs, just because. He's experimenting. He's testing—not in the sense of finding something that sticks (because if that was the case he would have stuck with producer Clams Casino and continued churning out breathy, spacey anthems). He's treading new waters because that's what the best artists do.
"A$AP Forever" was the entrance into the funhouse, designed to be shuddersome with a dash of saccharine to entice the kiddies. As we draw closer to the album's release, we're going to start seeing the ghoulish mirrors and other effects that'll make us question exactly what we're experiencing. And then, per each Rocky project, there will be one or two cuts that fit the traditional mold. But then again, this is the self-dubbed experiment. There's no telling what this will consist of.
In 2014, Rocky, A$AP Nast, and A$AP Ferg stopped by Funkmaster Flex's studio on Hot 97 to release a collective "freestyle" that quickly went viral. While Ferg spit parts of his verse from Meek Mill's "B-Boy," and parts of Nast's verse would appear on his track "Nasty's World," Rocky's verse was lackadaisical, yet genuine. While his contemporaries looked calmly into the mic during their raps, Rocky bounced fervently in his chair, looking wildly around the room for inspiration as if he was gasping for breath. The end result showed that even when he didn't have to, he still went out of his way to do something different than a typical rehearsed "freestyle." This same energy will be applied to TESTING and it'll be unwise to expect anything such. Rocky's on the verge of something huge; "A$AP Forever" is only the beginning.