There are three A$AP Rocky’s: The Fashion Icon, The Political/Spiritual Figure and The Artist.
Yesterday, A$AP Rocky announced a surprise/free show for the fans in celebration of Testing. At this live "Listening Experience" for Testing, as it were, I overheard a conversation between the bathroom concierge and a waiter— in the deepest of East Harlem Dominican accents— of the Sony Hall venue. The waiter was perplexed by all of the fuss in the venue, as if he expected it to be a day off. Flustered he asked the concierge, “Who the fuck is performing tonight? They make good music?” To which the concierge responded, “Rocky. And yeah I guess, I’m from Harlem” -- giving him little to no information about the actual music, as if being "from Harlem" was more than enough. This conversation early on in the night clued me in on the fact that Rocky The Artist is perhaps the least important of the three Rocky’s. Rocky has become an aesthetic, and an idea of Harlem success. Both of these factors have led New York embracing him more than ever, even if it's not for rap outright.
The Fashion Icon
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The crowd was surprisingly calm as they waited for Rocky to appear, showing signs of life mostly during a fist fight, which happened to coincide with Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day”— there was ‘80s and ‘90s rap playing for damn near a hour— alongside the dropping of Sheck Wes’ New York phenomenon “Mo Bamba.” Whenever a camera happened to be pointed at someone’s face they would beam with joy. It was an Instagram shoot. And no better place than in the presence of the figure who inspired so many of the styles that graced the venue. You could scan the room and instantly see distressed Vlone tees, Supreme bags strapped across the chest, Balenciaga runners and merch from every Kanye West tour, ever.
It was clear that the most important part about being in the building was to be— even just for a few hours— a part of the movement. One girl showed up with her graduation cap still on her head, as though she left mid-ceremony to gasp at the sight of her fashion inspiration. Another tried to capture Rocky’s elegant edginess by wearing a tee that spelled out “Don’t Kill Yhourself” (yes, spelled wrong) paired with jeans that had a Rolling Stones logo sewed on, a blinding belt, a skull and crossbones beanie, and the crispest pair of white Air Force Ones you will see.
I often forget just how important Rocky is to New York. Looking at a crowd that all resembled varying eras of Rocky stylistically reminded me of that. He’s their fashion guru. The man that made a bunch of kids from Harlem and the South Bronx realize that there is a place in the fashion world for them too.
The Political/Spiritual Figure
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The second version of A$AP Rocky is the strangest one. In a split second, Rocky can somehow go from his finest Harlem shit talking, to sounding like he’s running a presidential campaign. He would occasionally go off on these slightly pretentious tangents, to which the crowd would just stare at him, it was unclear if they were mesmerized by his words or just confused, their mood dampening. Rocky’s first speech was about war, and how much money the higher-ups are making off of guns: “War and pornography, remember that.” The speech received a light applause. Then Rocky would go off into metaphors which you could probably understand if you tried hard enough, but who wants to do that.
It’s clear that much like Kanye West, Rocky wants to be an educational and spiritual guide to his fans. The only thing is that both have been intertwined into a fashion world so deeply, and that world doesn’t exactly resemble real life, thus making their rants come across as out of touch or even speaking down to their audience. The crowd still looks on, though, because he’s A$AP Rocky.
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Any avid music listener will know that, oftentimes, to truly know and be able to enjoy an album, you'll need more than just a "first-listen" and this is best suited for headphones, or a high-quality sound experience in general. This alone seemed to have affected the crowd at the Sony Hall-- the fact that we were all hearing the music for the first time, a sense of connectedness with the music and by extension the artist was amiss. Early on, when Rocky played a couple of his early hits (“Peso” and “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2”) there was an exuberance in the air, but when the new music dropped the crowd jumped around and shoved each other soullessly. The rowdiness wasn’t the same, Rocky even set-up the most polite moshpit of all time, cautiously warning everyone to safeguard their phones to prevent them from getting lost.
The crowd nodded their heads as Rocky went acapella on a couple of verses, sounding like a battle rapper. He would repeat and emphasize lines he really wanted to stick, one line especially about the Teen Choice Awards he was extremely fond of (“This ain’t no Teen Choice Awards, I’m slide on ya” from the song "Tony Tone") receiving some applause and “oohs” out of it. Rocky added to the fan experience, recalling an episode of MTV Unplugged, as he shared insight on the album: doing LSD and Mushrooms with Skepta; the amount of “outside time and pussy” he sacrificed to make our future better through his music.
And, to be sure, the music Rocky was performing was good. Still, I was taken back by how secondary the music seemed. Especially since I remember a time where Rocky's songs captured a swag that couldn’t be found anywhere else in rap, and New York embraced him for that. His new music doesn’t necessarily embody New York at the moment, and perhaps as the title itself might indicate, Testing is Rocky searching for, as he says, “New sounds.” His album-making process has never been grounded solely in the city of New York, but now his music is even further beyond the city's limits, opting for an out-of-this world sound. His connection to New York, then, primarily exists on the fashion side -- that is the side of Rocky that New York appreciates most, no matter how good or genre-pushing the music is.