Acid Rocky: Is A.L.L.A. Deep or Dull?

A$AP Rocky drops his third album. Vogue rushes to catalog the fashion references.
By    May 29, 2015


 Torii MacAdams read the eulogy at Stack Bundles’ wake.

I wanted to hate A.L.L.A. I’ve repeatedly stated a distaste for A$AP Rocky’s blind appropriation of Southern rap, as well as his fathering a generation of dolts in “Trill” snapbacks — in print, on radio, and in casual conversation. But preconceived critical bias is an ugly thing to admit in an album review. I didn’t always feel this way. Rocky’s debut EP was a promising introduction, but it was the murky, purple depths of Live Love A$AP that captured my imagination and catapulted Rocky to stardom. Rocky’s synthesis of the Diplomat-dominated Harlem of his childhood, Imagined Houston, and a cast of blogosphere darlings was enthralling. It was also the apex of his career. In the four years between Live Love A$AP and A.L.L.A., Rocky released an admittedly rushed album with a highly regrettable Skrillex collaboration and a decent enough mixtape with his deeply average posse of goons. He became a fashion icon for those who own a shirt with “69” on it, an actor in one of Sundance’s best received films, a male model, and eschewed the “rapper” title. Rapping is now only a portion of the A$AP Rocky brand; he appears at your doorstep peddling rhymes, but in his case is an array of wares he’s eager to foist upon you.

A.L.L.A. reflects Rocky’s newfound sense of artistry–he’s no longer just a rapper, he’s a curator, and as such must keep up with mainstream rap’s recent turn toward abstraction. “Fine Whine,” featuring M.I.A. and Future, is half chopped and screwed love ballad, half aspirational, bombastic drums. Future is criminally underutilized, and M.I.A. chants “Tell your new bitch she can suck a dick.” It’s terrible. “L$D,” an acronym for the Madonna-worthy “Love Sex Dream,” is an execrable exercise of Rocky’s limited singing range. “Max B” would be solid were Rocky’s rapping not constantly interspersed with Joe Fox’s capital-S Singing. A.L.L.A. is fraught with missteps, and these are only the most egregious examples of the album’s ear-splitting pretensions.

A.L.L.A.’s nods to sonic progressiveness and emotional heft are performative for a simple, brutal reason: Rocky has no emotional depth. None. He’s not an artist. At best, he’s a stylist. “Back Home,” theoretically a tribute to A$AP Mob’s deceased svengali Yams, should be a soul baring moment. Yams was Rocky’s close friend, business partner, and manager, yet “Back Home” only has a solitary lyrical reference to the dead. And because Rocky believes he’s Mos Def/Yasiin Bey’s spiritual successor, it features the rogue Brooklyn rapper, who doesn’t mention Yams either. Rocky placed insurmountable artistic hurdles in front of himself by self-styling as an artist who’d transcended rap–there’s no amount obfuscation or dissonance that can mask the fact that Rocky just wants to make thinly veiled references to fucking Rihanna, committing petty crimes, and taking psychotropics.

When Rocky deigns to unselfconsciously participate in the activity that made him famous, he’s….pretty good. Rocky’s never going to enlighten his listeners, and he still only has one flow, but he’s got a good ear for beats, and is a passably clever lyricist. “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye (Part 2)” and “M’$” (which features a not completely awful Lil Wayne) are head-noddingly bombastic, and will probably be summer party jams. A.L.L.A.’s peaks are “Jukebox Joints,” produced by and featuring Kanye West, and “Wavybone,” featuring Juicy J and a reconstituted UGK. Over chopped soul samples, Rocky and West trade tales about repeatedly putting their penises in orifices, and the Harlemite provides the Internet with some salacious gossip by rapping:

Listen close I got some shit to tell you, motherfuckers get familiar

It’s not just model bitches on my genitalia

Did Azalea’s from Australia, trips to Venezuela

Cinderella’s under my umbrella for different weather

Ella, ella, ay just play it like I didn’t tell ya

“Wavybone” isn’t without its flaws–the politics of exhuming an unused Pimp C verse are complicated, and neither UGK member’s verse is very good–but any song featuring UGK and Juicy J is worthy of canonization.

The unsurprising irony of A.L.L.A. is that, amidst the failed high concept artistry, it’s the relatively straightforward rap that sounds best. A.L.L.A. could have easily been shorn of four or five superfluous songs, added the mysteriously absent single “Multiply,” and it would have been a leaner, more enjoyable package, while still maintaining his sense of sonic exploration. Rocky’s neither an eccentric, nor is he a genius, nor has he assembled a cast of collaborators that can cloak him in criticism-proof armor, à la Kendrick Lamar. Don’t let the angular Rick Owens attire or claims of auteurship fool you: Rocky is a traditional rapper being exposed by his own delusions of grandeur and what is surely a cadre of Yes Men. There are many worse fates than being a high-cheekboned rapper with an ear for pop hits and a widely lauded dress sense. If only A$AP Rocky would admit that to himself.

*Bones is not a high profile guest,
no matter how much Max Bell would argue to the contrary.

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