A$AP Rocky’s approach to music, for the better of the past seven years, has been to suck up every conceivable influence in front of him and to incorporate it into his brand. That’s not to say that he bites anything — he subtly acknowledges its existence, puts his own unique spin on it, and then it’s gifted to the masses. But he’s also capable of charging boldly into new territory with his battering ram, ready to take siege of a new castle of influence. He creates an interesting dichotomy of repurposing and innovating. There’s no one out like him in the game, and quite possibly, there never will be another.
Since his debut project LiveLoveA$AP, Rocky has been trying on different hats. The sixteen-track palette of worldly sounds painted Rocky as a man of eccentric tastes, of no introductions and existing in between the lines of New York rap. His debut album LongLiveA$AP was a broader, more-expensive version of the same thing, a number of flows over an ever-expansive palette of producers with enough weirdness to make Rocky look like Boy George. It culminated in a posse cut that featured Rocky attempting to hold his own against human-tornado Yelawolf, intellectual Joey Bada$$, and a couple of other guys whose lyrical capabilities far surpass Harlem’s own. Realizing that out-rapping the competition wasn’t a strongpoint of his, his next album, AtLongLastA$AP, further stretched the boundaries of his flows, incorporated some LSD-infused singing, and featured production that grew bigger, weirder, and more obnoxious, in a good way. As if to say “HEY! YOU HAVEN’T HEARD THIS BEFORE!” Some lukewarm reception painted this as his most unfiltered project yet, more focused on eccentricity than musicality.
TESTING is the first project to break the No$pacesName rule that Rocky placed upon himself, and maybe that’s saying something. He’s no longer burdened with trying to be the weirdest, most creative guy in the room— that much is now understood. Now, he’s in a new space. At nearly 30 years old, Rocky’s experimenting for the hell of it. He’s testing the waters, different than what he’s done before. That much is for sure when you fire it up and hear the overly garish bass of “Distorted Records,” that is, well, you know, distorted. I recoiled because of its explosiveness, making me take my Powerbeats 3s (I promise you, this is not an elaborate advertisement for Apple) out of my ears in disgust. Sneakily, Rocky comes from the underbrush, largely as a companion to the production instead of in front of it. The quieter change in his vocals is nice. As past work has proven, we come for his creative production and song stylings, seldom do we stay for the bars. If you purchased the album to hear Rocky spit lyrical sonnets, you deserve to be disappointed.
“A$AP Forever” is the second cut on the album, but feels like the introduction we’d expect from a Rocky tape. It invokes the grand opening and anticipation of “Palace” from LiveLoveA$AP but this time, T.I. opens it up telling us about Rocky’s individuality. If your heart starts to sink thinking that Rocky has resorted to showing us his uniqueness and not telling us, you’ll be happily surprised to hear the new rendition of the lead single, with Kid Cudi on it. A nice inclusion, indeed. Halfway through, the production changes, like the second half of boss menu music at the end of a dungeon in Final Fantasy X.
There’s so many sounds here , too many to isolate and identify. The ethereal sound of “F**k Sleep” sends chills up to the spine to the medulla oblongata . “Calldrops” plays with the concept of a “feature” and has a cellphone-recorded verse from an incarcerated Kodak Black, all while Rocky gently sings in the back. “Brotha Man” flourishes, opening up like a blooming flower, the soulful elegance blending with Rocky’s pitch-finicky goodness. Stand-out “Kids Turned Out Fine” features Rocky (who may suddenly have a promising career as an aspiring R&B artist in the vein of The Weeknd) singing and warbling in ethereal bliss, like a drug trip going South.
So much of it is weirder than weird — not just because of Rocky’s abilities, but because of how throughout the course of the album, Rocky seemingly melts into the background. TESTING chronicles his journey to transfix us with the beats, all the while lending his voice to add to the production like the addition of drums to a concert band. Since he isn’t a lyrical powerhouse, it’s time to focus on the ensemble experience.
“Purity” is one of the most interesting cuts on the LP, chiefly because of Frank Ocean’s powerhouse rap performance. In one sitting, Frank eviscerates Rocky own his own album — if you’re looking at it from a pure rap perspective. But Rocky wisely sidesteps coming to this conclusion by taking the back burner, letting Frank have the center stage.
For fans of lyricism, the album will be a disappointment. It’s not concerned with packing powerful punchlines or providing snarky social and political commentary (aside from a sexual harassment line that seems a little insensitive). The bread and butter, or “Gunz N Butter,” comes in the overall meaning, the oddball aesthetic that Rocky has cultivated so carefully. He’s always been a tester; now he’s changing the parameters of what’s being changed. The variable this time is the level of his vocal participation, choosing to alter the production more so than the vocals. It makes the video for “A$AP Forever” make sense in a self-aware sort of way — as Rocky stands on a street, the camera continuously makes vertical circles around him, with him remaining a constant in frame.
If you’ve followed Rocky since the beginning of his career, there should be no surprise about the direction of the album. He’s always been a big picture guy — you can literally hear how much time he put into crafting multiple elements of a song. With that being said, extended periods of creativity do have caveats. It becomes harder to innovate, draw inspiration from new sounds, even to fight Father Time as you become older and more linear while younger artists, many of whom you’ve inspired, produce more original stuff than you could ever imagine. That’s how a name like TESTING became an actual album title — those creative juices could be waning. Or, he just likes to throw the obvious in our faces.
This is our latest iteration of Rocky and his evolving sound. He’s sinking into the background and, whether you like it or not, it’s damn clever. Think about that before you chastise TESTING and think of it as a soundtrack to growing older and wiser. If you do that, you’ll think it’s the most brilliant thing on the planet. But if you compare it to the lyrically dense work of Pusha T’s Daytona, you’ll think it’s subpar. If you do that, you’re missing the point of testing. There’s a reason why crash dummies were featured so heavily in the album’s marketing. Someone has to crash so others can be safe. Rocky’s latest is for the innovators who’ve dreamed of dismantling rap’s mainstays and establishing their own. It should be appreciated as such.
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