ASAP Rocky Is Miles Ahead on Experimental ‘Testing’

These days rappers are expected to brag, but very few have actual bragging rights — ASAP Rocky is one of those who has earned them. If you simply take a look around the hip-hop scene, you’ll need to credit Rocky. He famously began combining avant-garde high fashion with streetwear at least a decade before it became ubiquitous, before going on to model for DIor, and his music has always been correspondingly ahead of its time. He has spoken of how he felt a need to prove, on his debut mixtape, “Live.Love.A$AP,” that he could make chart toppers while remaining true to his artistic instincts. On the follow up, “Long.Live.A$AP,” he claimed to have relinquished any such concern for popular taste, but still managed to debut at number one. His new record, the appropriately titled “Testing,” is his most radical output by far. It might sound downright alien to the average hip-hop head, a point Rocky acknowledges on his opening track, “Distorted Records,” claiming to be, “from a different planet.”

The opener is an onslaught of aggressive, abrasive synth bass over a skeleton of a classic “boom-bap” beat, cloaked in reverb. It’s hip-hop gone warehouse industrial, and it’s exhilarating. Rocky raps, “I don’t feel a thing,” but continues to repeat, “I can feel the bass.” Even if you let nothing get to you, the primal, immersive physicality of the music is overpowering. He calls out the countless copycats, declaring, “Little niggas is my offspring.” The album cut of the single, “ASAP Forever,” is a remix featuring Kid Cudi. The beat is minimal and monotonous, built around a chopped melodic sample, and Rocky delivers each line of the song in the same mechanical meter, creating a trancelike effect. In the end, the sample is unclipped and reveals itself to be Moby’s “Porcelain,” which plays freely for the outro. At one point, Rocky brags, “I put New York on the map,” a seemingly outrageous claim, considering that the South Bronx is hip-hop’s birthplace. However, Rocky came up at a time when the dirty south had taken over airwaves, relegating New Yorkers to lackluster niche revivalism, and he breathed new life into a tired scene, redefining what a New York rapper is meant to sound like.  

With all his avant posturing, Rocky can also be a classicist, in a way. He mines hip-hop history for forgotten defining elements and repurposes them with renewed vitality. “Tony Tone” has a throwback vibe, with a breakbeat, horn sample, and call and response interplay that look back to the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Rocky takes a much cooler stance than the typical impetuous rapper, saying, “I could give a fuck about a diss, ya heard?” “Fukk Sleep” is more grounded in the current mainstream context, with trap high hats and a catchy chorus of half-wrapped, half-sung snippets. In the end, however, it takes on a character of its own, as FKA Twigs makes a brief, but pristine appearance, making the song suddenly sound very much like Portishead.

“Praise the Lord” is a bouncy, infectious number, with UK grime artist Skepta. In the chorus, he raps, “I take what’s mine, then take some more / It rains, it pours, it rains, it pours,” with a matter-of-fact coolness, conveying a sort of nihilistic abandon, but in a rather cheery way. “Calidrops” is proof that Rocky truly couldn’t care less what anyone things. It’s an ambient piece built around the  lowest lo-fi guitar sample, with lethargic, reflective singing from Rocky, way too loud in the mix, and snippets of rappers saying thug stuff sporadically jutting in. The track is listed as featuring Kodak Black, but he shows up on a recording of a phone call from a correctional facility. The whole experience is very surreal and quirky in the same way as something like “Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show Great Job.”

Rocky revisits the lo fi aesthetic and brazenly off-kilter stylings on the largely ambient “Changes,” and “Kids Turned Out Fine,” on which the shabby guitar sample is left out of sync with the beat, creating a disorienting effect which gives the song its unique character. The disparate musical elements are juxtaposed in a way that is conspicuously awkward, but manages to work. This corresponds with the lyrical subject matter, which deal with the overestimation of generational differences. Rocky once released a single called “LSD,” and has likely taken inspiration from it, judging from the sound of his new record. On “Kids Turned Out Fine,” he reminds parents that they too were crazy back in their day, and turned out fine.

Many of the new songs are loosely structured and free-flowing. “Changes” finds Rocky at his most unabashed artistic whimsy, with three discrete songs condensed into a single track. The Frank Ocean-featuring “Purity” is spacious, with fully acoustic sections and scattered, spliced vocals, with a James Blake-type deconstructed soul sensibility. “Buck Shots” is on the more accessible side, with trap stylings, and Auto Tuned bits, but sporadic stops in the beat, and distorted adlibs give it a rawness that offsets the commercial aspects. Such is also the case with “Black Tux.” Rocky keeps it gangsta on the former track, boasting, “I ain’t scared / Real niggas put the clip in and let it go,” delving into a subject that finds further exploration on the following song, “Gunz N Butter.” The title alludes to the age-old economic question regarding the balance between defense and domestic spending. While his preceding bragodacio suggests a preference for “gunz,” Rocky leaves the issue open, asking, “What’s really butter?”   

The occasional gangster posturing seems primarily a means of insisting firm grounding in the hip-hop framework, as if to compensate for the alienating effect of Rocky’s madcap sonic experimentation. You might think Rocky’s a weirdo, but from his perspective, “You’re a cornstar.” This charge, from “Brotha Man,” appears to be a jab at the mainstream. However, other lyrics suggest that it’s equally directed toward a certain strain of “conscious rap.” Rocky raps, “You gotta fight for something’ / Stand for something’,” but goes on to admit, “I’d rather talk about how my neck is frozen and I’d rather talk about banging hoes.” He has consistently rejected the gospel that artists have a responsibility to take up political and social causes, opting instead for more of a Wildean “art for art’s sake” approach. This doesn’t mean that his lyrics are devoid of social commentary, only that he does not consider such commentary a duty. In “Black Tux, White Collar,” he says, “Fuck police cause he probably wanna arrest me.” The song’s title ostensibly describes achieving success (“White Collar”) while embracing black identity (“Black Tux.”) There is actually a “conscious rap” element to Rocky’s music, in the way he encourages listeners to follow his example, and make something of themselves. In “Hun43rd,” named after the street where he grew up, he promises, “From the cradle to the grave, I’ma put in work.”   

As adamant as Rocky might be about his right to rap about ice and bitches, he takes on such subject matter with a palpable levity, and is able to poke fun at his posturing, with lines like, “Getting that God’s view from towers / Looking’ downward like I’m Donald Trump.” Make no mistake in misinterpreting this. Rocky is vocal about his dislike of Trump from the onset, stating in the opening track, “My newest president an asshole.” Still, he has at least one commonality with Trump, in his repudiation of overly sensitive PC Culture. In “Black Tux,” he says, “Fuck fake people, I’ma go ahead and address it / Fuck you too just because you never said it,” In “Tony Tone,” he explains, “People really think I’m an asshole, I say anything / Truthfully, I just say what I really think.”

It’s some feat the ASAP Rocky manages to be so weird and still so popular. Charisma and marketing savvy surely play a role, but they couldn’t alone account for the phenomenon. The success of artists like Rocky suggests that people, at large, are more sonically adventurous and openly receptive than one might think; they merely need validation. Having noticed this, Rocky is really riding the wave with “Testing.” If it resonates with audiences to the extent that his early output did, it will be something truly astounding. At any rate, it’s a wild album, hinting at promising and exciting directions for hip-hop.  

Testing” is available May 25 on Apple Music.