Critic’s Notebook: ASAP Rocky Is Tweaking Rap’s Rules, but With Respect

January 17th, 2013

Chad Batka for The New York Times

ASAP Rocky performing at Santos Party House in Manhattan.

What are the hallmarks of great rapping in 2013? Lyrical imagination and complexity, sure — those are always on the list. But they’re increasingly sharing space with things like texture, emotion, versatility, experimentation and confidence. Rap has always made room for innovation, eccentricity and dialect, but the range has never been wider.

Arguments about what makes great rapping fail to grasp the beauty of the argument itself: there are so many options to choose from. Today’s great rappers don’t sound much like the ones they grew up on. Or sometimes they sound like everyone they grew up on, and then some.

Meet ASAP Rocky, stylistic admixture supreme. A Harlem native with an expansive ear, he’s become one of hip-hop’s brightest new stars by interpreting the Internet-fueled melding of tastes and influences that’s a given of modern life. And he’s a peacock, doing it with flair and authority. He isn’t an answer to old debates so much as a renunciation of them.

So while some choices on “Long.Live.ASAP” (Polo Grounds/RCA), his major-label debut album, feel familiar, it’s more as if they’re reflected in a fun-house mirror. There is New York rap, and also Houston and Cleveland and Miami and Los Angeles. There is 2013, but also 1992 and 1988 and 2007.

Throughout, ASAP Rocky is charismatic, full of sly wit and curiosity, a tweaker of orthodoxy while upholding it at the same time. “Yeah my mouth is full of gold and I’m a city boy/And my outfit was in Vogue, I’m a pretty boy,” he raps on “Ghetto Symphony,” a bonus track, and one of the album’s highlights. On “1 Train,” an update of the typical New York posse cut, he’s compact:

Bag made of Goyard

Cheffin’ like I’m Boyar-

-dee, probably selling D

in your local courtyard

Braids like I’m O-Dog

My la familia go hard

Down to my in-laws

They outlaws with no laws

Typically ASAP Rocky likes how words sound more than what they say; this is an album light on narrative. But he writes tight little couplets that punch and swerve: “Pac gone but the ‘Juice’ back/ Get your popcorn, juice, snacks”; “Tell me what your name is/ I’ma tell it to my stainless”; “Put the chrome to your dome, make you sweat like Keith.”

That last line is from his breakthrough single, which has a title unprintable here — “Problems” for short — and is by far the most literal song on this album. Produced by 40 and Drake, and featuring Drake, Kendrick Lamar and 2 Chainz, it’s a naked attempt to locate ASAP Rocky in the current hip-hop hierarchy. It succeeds but does him no favors because abstraction suits him best.

Emphatic in his style, ASAP Rocky is an experimenter who doesn’t operate at the margins. He has the attitude of a longtime hip-hop star and uses that currency to buy himself a large amount of wiggle room.

Some of his most powerful songs are the cloudiest. “Hell” — produced by Clams Casino, the ambient-industrial maven who produced some of ASAP Rocky’s most notable early songs — sounds like an orchestra being held hostage in an underground bunker with thinning oxygen. That’s followed by “Pain,” which sounds like Pharrell Williams being held hostage in an underground bunker with thinning oxygen. Even the album’s first song, the title track, is dank and foreboding, the opposite of a warm embrace. But it also features some of ASAP Rocky’s cockiest, sharpest rapping: “Strangers make me nervous/ Who’s that peeking in my window/with a pistol to my curtains?”

As loud an entrance as ASAP Rocky has made in the hip-hop world, he has made one just as impressive in the fashion world, though the overlap isn’t always seamless. This album features the lamentable “Fashion Killa,” a song that renders dull on record — by playing fashion Mad Libs with a couple dozen designer names — what his outfits and natural charisma render vivid in real life. He’s set a fashion bar that more established artists are scrambling to reach — see the vintage Raf Simons sneakers/moon boots he wore on “Late Show With David Letterman” on Tuesday — and he’s almost certainly the first rapper to insult someone by declaring, “You overaccessorize.”

For the most part ASAP Rocky doesn’t overaccessorize. Almost everything has a place. Occasionally he’s punished for not being a traditional New Yorker in terms of lyricism, which is wrong — there’s a heavy Cam’ron influence on this album — and shortsighted. He’s doing something that plenty of rappers from other regions have long done, and been lionized for.

In a couple of spots on this album ASAP Rocky moves beyond these concerns altogether, opting for something postnarrative. On the second verse of “LVL” he raps with Big Pun dexterity, but prettier, moving effortlessly from words to onomatopoeic sounds, thickening the density of his flow the whole while until he’s virtually speaking in tongues. He does the same on “Problems.” That song is glossy, but he pushes against it in the latter half of his verse, which is mean, intricate and swings with attitude. He is pure flamboyance. Add that to the list.

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