Archive for June, 2015

A.L.L.A. hu Akbar!

June 19, 2015


I love A$AP Rocky. So much so that, with his new album out, I even started writing out a track-by-track review (in part inspired by this first-listen review, even though my annotations have built up over repeated listens).

In the wake of To Pimp a Butterfly, I wondered how anybody could have the stomach to put something out in the same year–it could only suffer in comparison, right? Rocky’s my personal favorite (for reasons that should become apparent in this track-by-track), but still I wouldn’t try to claim that he’s Kendrick Lamar’s match in terms of lyrical skills, storytelling, or sociopolitical heft. I lived with Butterfly for a couple of months, listening to it several times a day, 24-7. I was worried that At.Long.Last.A$AP couldn’t hold my attention in the same way, but I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. After three weeks [three months- now, and counting (9/2/15)] plus of living with it in the same way as with Butterfly, I’m ready to record some of my reactions to it.

(Later, when I’m not listening to it on the daily, I’ll read the Pitchfork review. I love their reviews, but typically I find their reviewers so insightful and persuasive that I try to delay reading their takes until my own opinions and impressions have had some time to settle. It’s always fun to read Pitchfork then and say, ‘Oh yeah, I noticed that too!’ or ‘Holy shit, he’s right and it was under my nose all the time!’ Anyway, on with the shew.)

Holy Ghost. Def not feeling Joe Fox, whoever that is. Chorus makes me want to skip forward. But a new subject for Rocky, so that’s nice. On the other hand, this is an odd choice for the intro song–why the subject of shady pastors and manipulation via religion? It’s not like it’s a theme that re-appears anywhere else on the album is it? ‘Canal Street’, to take just one example, would make more sense, at least thematically: ‘Hi, it’s Rocky again; wow, I’ve come a long way. Who are all these fake MCs tryna steal my shine?’ And so on. Musically, I’d say ‘Holy Ghost’ has more of an expansive, let’s-get-ready-to-rumble vibe, but that’s about it. And that guitar lick is pretty lame for a hook.

Canal St. Mid- to down-tempo, Rocky gets reflective; what a long, strange trip it’s been (see above).

Canal St. This one’s growing on me–hooky chorus! Much better contribution from Joe Fox, and great guest appearances by M.I.A. and Future. Two songs in and they’ve both been about something more than Rocky repping Harlem, being a pretty motherfucker, and so on, and it’s affecting–esp. the druggy/mournful, downpitched opening verse.—Whoops, that was actually…

Fine Whine. The first great song on the album—is it an accident that it’s the first (and sadly, only) track produced by Clams Casino? ‘Fine Whine’—at first glance, some pretty lame wordplay. After the first line—a reference to one of his favorite narcotics—the vocals pitch down appropriately to match the drugged, screwed production, and Rocky comes across as (for once?) almost sensitive. He admits to having done his woman wrong, and when she (M.I.A.) jumps on the track to retort, the beats (and the song as a whole) take on thunder. Then Future has his say, but now I’m slightly confused: is this a love triangle, or is Future speaking Rocky’s part now? Whatever: works for me. I often find myself skipping the first two tracks to start off here. (I’ve only got this loaded on my iPod Nano, which is set to play the album on a loop, so in the course of the day, I’ll end up hearing the first two tracks at some point. It’s worth reflecting on how  I’ve listened to this album—on the go, wearing shitty earbuds, a few songs at a time in the subway or walking through the city—and how it might best be experienced [e.g., cruising in a jeep with serious bass in the trunk, or on a high-fidelity system at home, listening to the thing in its entirety]).

L$D. Who came up with the vocal melodies? Off-puttingly conventional/radio-friendly, but its charms are difficult to resist. The interpolated verse from ‘Excuse Me’ (in the video) is the first taste we get of the circular, left-turn logic of the album’s sequencing–and this makes it (somewhat) comparable to To Pimp a Butterfly in the way that themes and samples appear and then vanish, then reappear transformed: ‘L$D’/’Excuse Me’, ‘Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2’/’M’s’ (again, in the video), ‘Dreams’/’Back Home’.

Excuse Me. Again, suspect in its poppiness–sounds like Rocky doing his Drake impression on the chorus?–but absolutely irresistible. I never seem to notice when Rocky is singing a hook–I just start humming along. He’s a stealthy hookmaker. Maybe 50 Cent will always be the king of this kind of thing, but Rocky makes it sound so easy that no one seems to give him credit for it. This is one area where he measures up well to Kendrick Lamar, as impressive an ear and singing voice as the latter possesses. More broadly, Rocky’s ear/aesthetic taste is a massively imposing asset (pace ‘Fucking Problems’), and I suspect that he really hasn’t been given his due here. Lyrically, check out the end of the second verse: meter, rhythm, cadence—whichever it is (all three?), he’s got such a flair for it.

JD. ‘Lord Pret-ty Flacko Jodye step up in this piece’–starts out sounding like vintage A$AP Ferg (and where is the Fergenstein, by the way? Very conspicuous by his absence).

Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2. Dark banger, but the production is pretty boring/unoriginal (where is that whiny synth sound from, originally?). It’s also hard to distinguish from ‘JD’, really. At least it ends with an interpolation of ‘M’s’ in the video; that’s another pretty cool left turn.

Electric Body. Perfect finale to this trilogy of dark bangers–nice sequencing. I’m tired of critics’ lazily asserting, without careful argument, that Rocky is consistently outshone (outshined?) by his guests. But Schoolboy Q really rips into this song. And what a great (if slack) chorus! Super-cool samples, too (are those guitar harmonics in the intro and layered into the verses?).

Jukebox Joint. *Gurgle* *drool*–does anyone know how to use a soul sample like Kanye? (Note: J Dilla is dead.) Rocky’s three verses channel Jay-Z circa ‘Dear Summer’! Not hard, given the Kanye production. Yeezy’s taunting delivery of that ‘Hey bitch, ya missed out/Hashtag FOMO’ line has to be one of the great punchlines on the whole album (honorary mention goes to Rocky’s ‘Turn into a racist/Now all I wanna see is green faces’; Schoolboy Q’s ‘work in the Birkin’ cascade is more lyrical than hysterical).  ‘When my death calls, I pray the Lord accept collect calls, ‘cos I be playin’ wit’ these women like they sex dolls”—this is one of those bits of Rocky wordplay, by the way, that doesn’t seem to hold up under closer scrutiny. What, is God supposed to pick up the phone when Death calls and ‘pay’ the charges, buying Rocky a little more time? Is that the idea? The wordplay seems forced. (Cf. also ‘Full of wisdom but I be spittin’ like my tooth ache me’. Is this a bad pun, or just a novel form of wordplay? I guess the latter. Anyway, it works better for me than the collect-call stuff.)

Despite the pleasures to be derived from Kanye’s verse, I have to wonder why he sounds like he was airlifted into the track. Rocky’s covered a lot of ground in his three verses (all-too-rare-but-here-compelling imagery, in the lines conjuring up a ‘dark house party with the record blasting’ on verse 1; generic big pimpin’ on verse 2; whispered confidences on verse 3), but how does ‘Ye Guevara’ come in? ‘What’s up, Bruh?/That all depends/With friends like you/Who needs friends?…’ I mean, there’s zero acknowledgment that this is a shared track—no introductory shout-outs, a la Raekwon or Jim Jones, no lyrical interplay, nor riffing off shared themes. Pimp C sounded more integrated into his track, and he’s DEAD. C’mon, Yeezy—this is almost as disconnected as Jay-Z’s continuity-carpetbombing verse on ‘Crazy in Love’!

Max B. This one’s a real stealth hook–grew on me really slowly! A real sign of Rocky’s expanded ambition: the song aims for more emotional depth, and musically it takes a few left turns. The acoustic bit at the end (‘Did I fuck it up?’) is beautiful (dig those harmonies underneath: are those vocals or something else?) and also a bit weird, interpellated as it is with the echoey intro sample. The Achilles heel here, however, is that the lines referring to a fallen homie can only sound like a pale echo of the kind of thing that Kendrick Lamar does so transcendently–it doesn’t seem possible to do this kind of thing any better than ‘Sing About Me’, does it? Rocky, you’re my favorite, but even I believe that A$AP Yams will never get the kind of musical eulogy he would have enjoyed at the hands of King Kendrick. (That ‘pause and skip’ cold break definitely recalls some m.A.A.d. City-/To Pimp a Butterfly-style studio-as-narrative-instrument gimmickry–but good stuff.)

Pharsyde. The chorus reminds me a little too much of Eminem’s ‘Stan’, although the dubby bass (that’s from the sample) is somewhat interesting. Still, I’m tempted to skip this one–it drags a bit. But it gets a little better with the change (the one with the children’s choir), and at least Rocky’s getting reflective, moving ‘past all the swag-trappin’ and fashion talkin’. But a brief allusion to gentrification doesn’t really cut it–a Kendrick Lamar might’ve devoted a whole song and all of his formidable storytelling powers to the subject.

Wavybone. Perfect soul sample. Strong guest vocals from Juicy J and UGK (Pimp C and Bun B). 16 bars each? Who won?

Westside Highway.

Better Things. Features the infamous Rita Ora diss lines that one reviewer condemns as ‘one of the ugliest pop-culture moments of the year’.

M’s. Another dark banger, features Lil’ Wayne. Great wah-wah guitar flourishes and some snarly attitude.

Dreams (Interlude). Cool, spooky piano. Great flow (I’m a sucker for triplets), but ends with that half-hearted attempt at social commentary, as well as a disappointing, more nursery-rhyme cadence.

Everyday. Rod Stewart!? Noteworthy Hammond Organ/Leslie speaker sound; a few attention-grabbing change-ups, along with Miguel ‘dueting’ with Stewart and Rocky. Second verse starts out snarling–I thought it was Kanye for a minute! Not a fan, ‘cos I’m not a particularly big fan of Kanye’s style. (Kendrick’s Yeezy moments are a similar turn-off.)

Back Home. What a closer! Strong opening soul sample for the chorus, segues into a pulsing verse. Yay, Mos Def! Circles back to the haunting piano figure from ‘Dreams’, with A$AP Yams braggadociatin’ from beyond the grave. ‘Ak-sasserizin’!!!