Steven Louis pitch-shifted his high school valedictorian speech.
TESTING, A$AP Rocky’s first studio album in three years and the fourth major solo release of his career, is fine. Enjoyable, unexceptional. There’s an imaginative nine-song project hiding among 15 tracks; it’s a tab of acid with your most self-assured friend, spoiled occasionally by aimless high art musings. TESTING is not as ambitious as A.L.L.A. or as cohesive as LiveLoveA$AP, which is alright: If Rocky has indeed plateaued as a rapper, it’s only after a fruitful and tasteful seven-year run in hip-hop’s top weight class.
I still spent most of Memorial Day listening to TESTING, because this album affirms that Flacko has a skill in his repository forever worth checking out. A$AP Rocky is a masterful vocal manipulator. It’s been that way since “Purple Swag.” The collages of distorted, reappropriated flows he oversees ensure that even his most inconsistent projects come with a few rapturous peaks. In an economy that favors repetition over everything and perpetual output from the same familiar suspects, I’m thankful for Rocky’s interest in making voices sound different than they usually do.
Both Frank Ocean appearances are mesmerizing. On “Purity,” he warbles out a billowed sample of “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind.” It’s low-hanging fruit, sure, but goddamn if it isn’t amazing to hear Frank Ocean adlib over Lauryn Hill. Meanwhile, “Brotha Man” distills a generational voice to syrupy, lugubrious muttering; it’s juxtaposed with a hook sung by French Montana, who does not have a generational voice, like, at all. It’s crowded and emotive, familiarly post-Blonde without exactly recalling any Frank vocal performance to date. That alone is an impressive feat for an album to pull off.
There are a lot of other stylish tricks buoying TESTING from being a disappointment. They’re small moments that are often distracted from, but they’re undoubtedly inspired and worth revisiting. Rocky has FKA Twigs embroider “Fukk Sleep” with whines and moans that make my blood rush. He has Diddy slinging muffled, vintage “let’s go, take that!” adlibs on the thoroughly-trendy “Tony Tone.” He deploys Kodak Black with a croaking, off-rhythm poem delivered from a prison phone on “CALLDROPS.” Hell, he has Kid Cudi sounding comfortable on a hit rap remix in 2018.
Perhaps the most successful collaging emerges on“Gunz N Butter.” It’s low-stakes stuff, considering that there’s an obligatory Juicy J collab on just about every Rocky release. But with a numb, sparse beat, the skeleton of “Gunz N Butter” is assumed mostly by Juicy adlibbing over a slowed sample of his own 2002 collaboration with Project Pat. It chops, buckles, and punctuates. It’s infectious and eerie at once. It’s southern dungeon rap under the influence of designer drugs, which is basically what Rocky’s been in pursuit of since he introduced himself to the world as that pretty motherfucker.
The album is too long, with an exhaustive number of pitch modulations, and Rocky doesn’t have a ton of interesting things to say on it. But I’m glad TESTING is out. It underscores Rocky’s most vital contribution to the contemporary landscape. We’ve seen it over the past year when he’s played ringside coach to Ferg, Carti, and Lana Del Ray, and we see it here with such a compelling spectrum of vocal features.
There are a lot of technically stunning rappers, and a lot of artists making music without genre or format restrictions. There aren’t a lot of rappers so fascinated by making voices sound intoxicated, and even fewer with good taste or original intentions. TESTING may reveal Rocky’s limitations as a writer, and a performer, but certainly not as an A&R or an exec producer or an experimenter. Perhaps it marks a subtle legacy transition or a commitment to promoting his creative director ambitions. But please, vocalists of the universe, please keep singing to A$AP Rocky. Not every one of his acid-washed ramblings are worth listening to, but damn, it seems like all the interesting people at the party want to at least trip with him for a few hours.