A$AP Rocky's 'At.Long.Last.A$AP' and the rise of depression in hip-hop
A$AP Rocky’s eagerly anticipated second album At.Long.Last.A$AP was supposed to show up in stores next week, but thanks to a long weekend-related leak, it was unleashed on the public early. Like Kendrick Lamar before him, Rocky watched what was probably an intricately-designed rollout crumble under the weight of breathless anticipation over what one of the most definitive voices in modern hip-hop had to say. Rarely has there been a greater disconnect between the promotion of an album (which features Rocky talking about orgies and ’70s rock star debauchery) and the actual content (which is largely the sound of Rocky being pretty depressed).
He’s got plenty to be down about. Though he’s enjoyed the fruits of success over the past few years (especially following the surprise crossover success of the Long.Live.A$AP single “F—in’ Problems”), Rocky has a brutal backstory: His father went to jail when Rocky (born Rakim Mayers) was only 12, and a year later his older brother Ricky was killed. More recently, he endured the sudden passing of A$AP Yams, a longtime friend, manager, and confidante who died of an accidental drug overdose back in January. Yams’ specter is all over At.Long.Last, most poignantly on the album-closing “Back Home,” which ends on a rant that finds Yams calling out rappers riding in the wake of A$AP’s success.
But Rocky is clearly trying to exorcise some inner demons, and he’s often turning the rage inward. On that same track, Rocky raps, “Sippin’ holy water like it’s bore from my kidneys/ Load the smoke like a chimney/ Make a toast for the memories/ Make a toast for the Henny/ It’s the best for the remedies.” Plenty of rap songs feature rhapsodizing about hip-hop’s favorite cognac, but this isn’t a celebration in the club. Rather, he’s drinking to ease the pain of loss. That’s a very different Rocky who quipped “Drink Cristal by the case” on Long.Live’s “Goldie.”
There’s a lot more of that on the album. On “Fine Whine,” even as he’s in the midst of a confident seduction, he notes “I know I’m a scumbag/ And now your heart broke.” “Max B” is mostly about how much Rocky misses the Harlem rapper of the same name who is currently in jail. Even when he’s celebrating the good life on “M’s,” he still pauses for the aside, “It’s like lately I ain’t myself/ I’d rather hang myself before I play myself.” On any other rap record, that would be breezy hyperbole, but in the context of the rest of At.Long.Last, suicide imagery and struggles with identity become all the more poignant.
Sonically, A$AP Rocky has always preferred drowsy, slurry beats that compliment his flow, which is a thrilling hybrid of New York boom-bap and Southern porch slang. His watershed mixtape Live.Love.A$AP was also the breakout moment for producer Clams Casino, a dude whose super-casual, druggy approach made him an in-demand name and predicted the rise of minimalist crossovers like Mike Will Made It. (To get a sense of Clams’ approach to pop music, check out his dreamy, claustrophobic remix of Sia’s “Elastic Heart.”) Clams isn’t on At.Long.Last, but Rocky chose backing tracks that fall into his aesthetic. Danger Mouse, the patron saint of hip-hop melancholy and a tag-team partner for sad-eyed indie dudes like James Mercer and the late Mark Linkous, shows up a few times, including on the drowsy “Pharsyde,” which is full of remarkable self-loathing. “Soemtimes I wish I could get away and charter spaceships to get away from my inhuman race with hearts of Satan,” Rocky raps on a verse about finding a dead body in his Harlem neighborhood. Later, he adds, “26 years of living/ That’s how many f—s I’ve given.” Hip-hop has been dealing with no-tomorrow nihilism for decades, but that sentiment really seems to come from somewhere deeper.
Not all of At.Long.Last is a self-flagellating drag—after all, professional stripper enthusiast Juicy J does show up for a banger called “Wavybone,” and Rocky teams up with frequent collaborator Schoolboy Q on a mildly filthy sex joint called “Electric Body” (which is separate from the Rita Ora-insulting sex joint “Better Things”). Still, between the slowed-down nature of the music and the escapism and hopelessness embedded in the lyrics, At.Long.Last.A$AP is the latest entry in the burgeoning depression rap movement. The greatest hip-hop in history has focused primarily on documenting external events—to paraphrase Chuck D, it’s often been the CNN of the streets. But lately, a lot of that analysis has turned inward, and it has led to a lot of realizations about the emptiness of fame, the slippery slope of identity, and the devestation of loneliness. Rappers have always talked about their feelings, but a genuine analytical look at the failings of self—the way that mope-rockers like Thom Yorke or Morrissey do—has been more rare. Tupac did a lot of self-examination and sometimes had revelations, as did Biggie. But lately, a whole string of extremely talented MCs (who also happen to be critical and commercial darlings) have carved out a niche by running their souls through the wringer.
Drake is the godfather of the movement, as he lashes out as much at himself as he does at outside forces. The back half of Take Care, an album that sold 630,000 copies in its first week, is essentially Drake trying to figure out whether his failed relationships are his fault. He also struggles with his own identity. “I’m just lookin’ in the mirror like I’m really him,” he raps on one of the best tracks from this year’s stirring surprise If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late (which, it should be noted, sounds like a suicide note and is scrawled as such on the album’s cover). “Man, I’m really him, you just fillin’ in.” Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole have also played around with their own identity crises and self-loathing, and both have experienced an exceptional amount of success through baring their flawed souls.
At.Long.Last.A$AP is a fantastically dense hip-hop album, worthy of its association with recent instant classics like Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and the aforementioned Drake surprise album. Even though Rocky often writes with a sense of hopelessness, it’s rarely a downer—his natural charisma is too powerful to ever allow anything he’s on to be boring. And depression rap isn’t an overwhelming trend, and there will always be plenty of room for goofballery like “Trap Queen.” But in considering what’s lurking deep in his psyche, A$AP Rocky has officially taken his place next to the best rappers of his generation. A–