Working closely with talented producers like Clams Casino and Hit Boy, A$AP Rocky has cultivated one of modern hip-hop’s most singularly entrancing sounds, a hazy, numinous aesthetic built on fantastically off-kilter beats. Yet for all the effort expended in laying this groundwork, A$AP himself often doesn’t seem up to the occasion, routinely underplaying material that demands a strong anchoring presence and refusing to push his lyrical focus beyond the usual hackneyed tropes. It’s an issue that continues on Long. Live. A$AP, an album that delivers another spate of choice beats, but feels consistently under-baked on the lyrical side of the equation.
A$AP’s recent feud with former collaborator SpaceGhostPurrp means a departure from the smoky mysticism of Live. Love. A$AP, and the songs here stretch out in a variety of different experimental directions. This results in some missteps, like Skrillex’s shrieking electro-beat for “Wild for the Night,” but the exploration pursued here nods to a consistently forward-facing style. The same can’t be said for A$AP’s own rhymes, which crib from a stockpile of tired influences, from his continued fixation on the mostly bygone purple-drank lifestyle to his Kanye-style obsession with the specifics of his wardrobe. Hailing from New York, long a bastion of technically accomplished MCs, A$AP seems either unable or unwilling to employ much effort on his craft, affecting super-slow, pitch-modified vocals and favoring soundscapes that seem designed to force him down to the bottom of the mix.
A strong parity between a rapper’s vocal delivery and his beat choices has always been an underused element in hip-hop, and A$AP’s willingness to stand back and let the music breathe does go a long way in contributing to the distinct textures of his approach. But his attempts to burrow into the very fabric of that music often leave him feeling strictly ornamental. Where a frequent collaborator like Kendrick Lamar tries too hard, cycling through a diverse parade of poses, narrative lines, and lyrical modes, A$AP instead seems to be affecting a persona steeped in willful laziness, leaning hard on a framework of choral, cultic repetition.
This kind of chameleon-like style acts as the setup for A$AP’s one repeated trick, in which the rapper busts out of this sleepy haze to unleash a torrent of speedy wordplay, as he does briefly on the otherwise crawling “LVL,” or against the ghostly soul samples of “Suddenly.” Already used a bunch on Live. Love. A$AP., this feint is by now routine, less an actual tool than another ploy from a man trying to master the art of rapping in his sleep.
So like A$AP’s debut, Long. Live. A$AP is an intermittently dazzling collection of slinky, mutated R&B helmed by an unsteady, half-interested voice. It ends up being more disappointing than its predecessor, because A$AP no longer has the excuse of green immaturity or mixtape messiness. His apathy seems especially clear on a track like “1 Train,” which assembles a cluster of rising stars, including Lamar, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T., all of whom sound hungrier and more lyrically inventive than A$AP, who hangs back and contributes little. Rather than push toward a lyrical style that might equal his interesting aesthetic, he continues to match the diffuse nature of that sound by being totally vaporous himself, a barely there MC floating by in a catatonic haze.