When RCA threw $3 million behind A$AP Rocky, it wasn’t just investing in the Harlem rapper. It was investing in a whole A$AP empire, backing not only Rocky’s debut album but also his group label A$AP Worldwide, a potential farm system for other up-and-comers who run in Rocky’s Internet circles. For his part, Rocky was to serve as the telegenic public face of this empire, a gateway to the odd, luxuriant strains of rap that thrive online, just below radio’s radar. It sure seems like a vote of no confidence, then, that instead of introducing listeners to Rocky’s codeine-and-cashmere aesthetic, the first real single from Rocky’s RCA debut, Long. Live. A$AP, was “Fucking Problems,” a DJ Khaled-less DJ Khaled track carried by a slick Drake verse, a boffo 2 Chainz chorus, and a sure-thing beat from Noah “40” Shebib. The track also tosses in a Kendrick Lamar guest spot, which only further crowds Rocky out of what was supposed to be his spotlight.
Rocky doesn’t have the kind of presence to stand out against all those bigger names. Though he raps proficiently, with ample confidence and a nimble tongue, he’s a flat personality who regards his shallowness and vanity as his best qualities. “Pussy, money, weed / All I really need,” he raps on “PMW,” and with the exception of fashion, that’s about all he ever raps about. His gift, then, is his exceptional ear. His exemplary production tastes carried his breakthrough 2011 mixtape, Live. Love. A$AP, and he never sounds more at home on his commercial debut than when he’s reunited with some of its producers, especially Clams Casino, who contributes two sterling tracks. Unfortunately, though, most of Rocky’s mixtape producers have been edged out of Long. Live. A$AP in favor of bigger and more familiar studio hands. Opener “Long Live A$AP” credits no less than six producers, including hitmakers Jim Jonsin and Rico Love, and the result is a busy, shapeless muddle. On the album’s biggest outlier, “Wild For the Night,” Rocky is outmatched by a screechy Skrillex beat, but even when he’s paired with a more logical collaborator like Danger Mouse on “Phoenix,” his performance is oddly out of sync. Rocky’s mixtape demonstrated that he can work his wheelhouse, but the further Long. Live. A$AP takes him from that cloud, the more RCA’s $3 million dollar investment begins to look like a reckless impulse buy.