Critics have charged hip-hop with becoming a conservative space with redundant production, predictable feature appearances and safe musical choices — and justifiably so. Which makes the left-path decisions made on the 2015 sophomore studio albums by two artists at the forefront of the game, Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky, so refreshing. Too frequently an artist coming off a breakout debut tries to duplicate that success by sticking to the formula. That's not the case here.
AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP may share similar punctuation to 2013's LONG.LIVE.A$AP, but it's a much more risky, expansive and intriguing listen.
Let's start with A$AP protégé Joe Fox (no relation), a songwriter-guitarist so unknown, he doesn't have a Wikipedia page. From the streets of London to collabo credits on five of this LP's better tracks, Fox's bluesy strains set an ominous tone on opener "Holy Ghost," in which Rocky picks apart the dying carcass of organized religion: "I got my own relationship with God."
Though at times fashion- or female-obsessed — watch for the swipe at ex-girl Iggy Azalea here — A$AP's rocky Harlem life has instilled a maturity in the 26-year-old that can be disarming and fantastic when it pokes through.
Sure, he'll offend Rita Ora and spit about coochie with ScHoolboy Q on "Electric Body," an offensive hoot that tears its hook from an old Uncle Luke notebook. And he'll hustle-brag the length of "Canal St." But the pretty kid named after Rakim also yearns for escapism on "Pharsyde": "If you've seen the shit that I done seen in 26 years, that's how many fucks I've given."
At heart, Rocky is a collaborator. And although the wound of losing friend A$AP Yams — an executive producer here and a voice on "Back Home" — may be too fresh to examine in detail, partnership is an important theme. A.L.L.A makes the best and most natural use of a diverse cast of cameos since Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
There's M.I.A. and Future adding texture to "Fine Whine," a resurrected Pimp C relinking with Bun B and Juicy J on the southern romp "Wavybone," the dog's breakfast of Miguel, Mark Ronson and Mom Jeans fave Rod Stewart on "Everyday" and the ever-fun Kanye West bringing one of his endearingly sloppy freestyles to the soul-sampling "Jukebox Joints." Yet the aesthetic, however eclectic, remains A$AP: confident, playful, sometimes sad and still making mistakes.
As Joe Fox sings on "Max B": "I hold back thoughts running through my head / Did I fuck it up?" (Polo Grounds/RCA)