It’s been three years since we last heard a full length album from A$AP Rocky. He has a penchant for experimentation, and has bent the rules for what a rapper from New York is supposed to sound like; the Harlemite has been on the cusp of greatness for nearly a decade.
However, he hasn’t quite lived up to the extraordinarily high expectations put on to him after “Peso” gave way to the promising LIVE.LOVE.A$AP mixtape in 2011. Since then, he’s had flashes of brilliance on both LONG.LIVE.A$AP and the psychedelic follow-up AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, but neither came close to delivering on the potential for the charismatic emcee.
Three years feels like an eternity in rap music today, with such a vicious cycle of albums being ran through before it's on to the next. In order to keep a listener’s ear, you have to deliver something truly special. In between albums, Rocky has been dabbling as an actor in films like Dope and the forthcoming Monster, while maintaing a presence in the world of fashion. But he’s looking to change that with his third album Testing.
Does he succeed? Time will only tell, but here are five things that jumped out at us upon having a first listen of his third studio album.
The Title Is Appropriate
The title that A$AP Rocky chose for his third studio album is fitting, considering that he spends much of the album Testing out new approaches to music. It’s no secret that A$AP Rocky’s charisma and style has taken precedence over the content of his music. His confidence and fearlessness has always been his calling card, and Testing is more of him bravely stepping out of the box to try something new.
Whether that be how he utilizes guests like Moby (“A$AP Forever”), tries new things with his voice (“Gunz N Butter”) or opts to go the spoken word poetry route (“Changes”), everything is about changing the texture of his music. The way the production is approached, for better or worse, is much different than what has been released in hip-hop recently. Just know that you're not really sure what’s coming from A$AP Rocky until you hear it.
His Guests Are Used In Unique Ways
Rather than the tried and true approach of having his guests provide either hooks or 16 bars, A$AP Rocky experiments with how to place them on the album. A keen ear will notice Puff Daddy ad-libs on “Tony Tone” and Snoop Dogg provides a drive-by guest spot on “Brutha Man.” Both go uncredited. Meanwhile, Kodak Black’s call from jail is spotlighted on “Calldrops” and BlocBoy JB’s appearance on “OG Beeper” is nothing more than ad-libs, as opposed to a verse. These are all cool nuggets that listeners may not anticipate, and Rocky keeps you on your toes regardless of what you read on the track listing.
Experimental Isn’t Always Good...
The Harlem rapper has always been about pushing the boundaries of hip hop with his unique style that is willing to try just about anything. On projects like AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, the ambition was realized with a bold and generally successful approach. But Testing, for all of its grandstanding, doesn’t necessarily show the growth that one would expect from a third album. Instead, it feels like Rocky is still trying to find a sound that works.
The A$AP Mob leader takes a lot of risks on Testing. Some work out, others do not. The spoken word approach that he takes on the sleepy “Brotha Man” falls flat while the singing on the “Calldrops” is frivolous drivel. The phoned-in appearance from Kodak Black doesn’t help matters much, either. At this point in his career, A$AP Rocky doesn’t get points for trying. He only gets points from executing. And much of Testing still feels like he’s trying to find something that sticks.
A$AP’s Less Experimental Moments Stand Out
As mentioned before, A$AP Rocky tries a lot of different things on Testing. And some of those attempts fall relatively short. However, there are moments on the album where it all comes together. The Frank Ocean assisted album closer “Purity” is one of those moments, and it’s less experimental than just about everything else on the album. Over a sample of Lauryn Hill’s “I Gotta Find Peace Of Mind” from her MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album, Rocky’s introspection is well-received.
Using a substance over style approach, Rocky reflects on his fame and the challenges of finding pockets of peace where he can simply enjoy his close friends and family. It’s moments like this where the potential is reached and the criticism that his music lacks substance is addressed. The same can be said for “Black Tux, White Collar” where Rocky teams up with frequent collaborator Clams Casino and executes one of most potent songs on the album. It’s not terribly ambitious, but the rolling production and Rocky’s bars that tackle the issues between police and African Americans, as well as his own trust issues, are extremely satisfying. Unfortunately, those moments are fleeting on Testing.
A Missed Opportunity
If you’ve been waiting to cash out on your A$AP Rocky stock that you’ve been holding on to for the past seven years, Testing isn’t quite the album that you would want to do so with. Although it’s ambitious and finds Rocky trying to separate himself from the pack, it falls short of expectations set from his LIVE.LOVE.A$AP mixtape.
It might be unfair to keep going back to the mixtape that started it all as the bar for Rocky’s creativity, but that’s the bar he set and he’s expected to raise it every time out. He was heading in that direction with AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP but becomes a victim of his own ambition on Testing.
When Rocky first showed up on the scene in 2011, we were all taken back with his approach to making music. The hype has died down, which made this the perfect time for him to show the world what he’s made of. If you were hanging on to his stock, chances are that you fully expected something special with Testing. But he bangs his head on the glass ceiling with his third album and perhaps it is time to realize that our expectations of him are simply too high.