This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Fashion Rap
Favorite Tracks: “A$AP Forever REMIX (featuring Moby, T.I., and Kid Cudi),” “Buck Shots,” “Brotha Man (featuring French Montana)”
A$AP Rocky has been fairly quiet since releasing AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP in 2015. In the time between then and his latest album, TESTING, Rocky seems to have realized a new mission statement by which he will guide his rapping career. Gone are the days of bangers like “Fuckin’ Problems” and old school joints such as “1Train” (both of which appear on LONG.LIVE.A$AP.) Now, the Harlem native has stripped back the flash of his previous works and showed us something that is minimal, ambient, and somewhat personal. This change in vibe comes in concert with his other aspirations. He has expanded his visions into applied art over the past three years by venturing into modeling, fashion, and furniture design. Most recently, he unveiled a performance art piece titled “Lab Rat” in NYC. As part of the exhibit, Rocky trapped himself inside a glass cell that sat within Sotheby’s art space. While spending more than two hours in the cell, he revealed intimate secrets about himself to spectators, ate hot peppers, performed physical exercises, and listed out personal tests he had to overcome in the making of this project. Such a confusing display only makes sense given the bizarre, and sometimes bland, nature of the album.
There is quite a bit riding on TESTING. While AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP kept Rocky on the scene, that album started a path away from the vigorous tenacity of a rap star we once knew. In a few ways, TESTING is the execution of a sound A$AP Rocky has been trying to create since his debut; an older track like “Canal St.” has evolved into something like TESTING’s third song, “Tony Tone”—a discombobulating mix of striking synth and low-toned vocal chants. Following in the steps of one of his many featured artists, Kid Cudi, he experiments with a range of sounds and sonic motifs that attempt to distance himself from the mainstream and, like Cudi, this comes after already proving to the populous that he has the chops to put out radio hits. Yet, some of the instrumentation utilized by Rocky is not new to rap. The flute samples on “Praise The Lord (Da Shine)” are indicative of a rising trend in samples most notably seen in Future’s “Mask Off,” and what sounds like a distorted toy piano on “OG Beeper” falls in line with what Lil Yachty and the latest guard have been playing with.
More closely related to his personal journey as a rapper is the passing of Harlem rap vanguard A$AP Yams. Until his death, Yams was a mentor to Rocky and played a huge part in his rise within the New York rap scene. Without Yams at the helm, Rocky had to both navigate TESTING without a guiding hand, curating an experience that is categorically himself. In order to make the mark of a new voice, he makes use of his own by stepping into sung-rap several times within the album. “Kids Turned Out Fine” is a soft generational reflection reminiscent of a ‘50s sock-hop slow dance with a twist, with Rocky providing the chorus before jumping into his verses. Notably, the album closer “Purity” allows him to lend a vocal hand before bouncing bars off of the always fantastic Frank Ocean.
A common musical theme within the album is a sense of distortion and chaos via slowed-down vocals and crashing noises. On “CALLDROPS,” a schizophrenic ballad filled with layers of speech that pan across the song, Rocky takes a huge quality risk featuring the controversial Kodak Black. The 2016 XXL freshman, who is currently serving prison time for a gun charge and marijuana possession, sings his nasally verse via a timed prison phone call. While the attempt to feature a guest from prison is admirable for an artist, it does not leave a lasting impact, as Black’s lyrics are almost entirely indiscernible. The track ends abruptly with the voice of an automated operator exclaiming “Free Kodak,” which in and of itself is a bit of a pitfall; while Kodak Black has quickly climbed the ladder as a performer, his history includes several charges of sexual assault and does not have the same stamp of systemic oppression that was faced by someone like Meek Mill.
At its core, TESTING wants to be the high art that A$AP Rocky intends to delve into more and more, but it just is not quite there yet. That is not to say that it is a surefire miss—the focal point of the album, “A$AP Forever REMIX,” a great, lively, orchestrated update to the previously released single “A$AP Forever,” which now includes a guest verse from Cudi and a shout to the memory of Yams from T.I. Vocalist Khloe Anna that rides out the song over the top of a downbeat sample from Moby’s “Porcelain,” giving us a strange feeling of clarity so early on in the piece. However, moments like that are fleeting track-by-track. Perhaps this is just A$AP Rocky trying to find his footing without Yams in the picture. Luckily for him, even if this testing of new image does fail, he has already cemented himself in rap history behind LONG.LIVE.A$AP.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend