It’s somewhere around 9:50 p.m. on a cool night in May.
It’s Tuesday, and 30-plus music journalists and another three dozen employees of RCA Records are milling around New York City’s Redbull Studios patiently waiting for the arrival of Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky.
It’s the official album playback of Rocky’s long-awaited sophomore effort – At.Long.Last. A$AP – and he’s nowhere in sight.
Figuring the event was going to be complete melee with an overcrowded door, stressed assistants and overzealous security, most industry insiders arrived at the time RCA requested – 8 p.m.
These sessions rarely start on time, but you can never “try your luck” when dealing with labels, lists and free liquor.
I was heading towards the bar to kick back my fourth cup of Ruffino Prosecco when the Vice President of Publicity, Theola Borden, began asking the quaint room to “make their way downstairs.”
Unsure if the studio downstairs was equipped with a bar, I decided not to move an inch, instead I anxiously waited for the lone bartender to pour the man next to me a vodka Redbull.
“There’s a bar downstairs,” some random RCA intern informed me.
Too late. I’m next and the bartender remembers the six dollars I slid him three drinks ago and fills me up without me uttering a word.
Making my way down the stairs, I reignite a conversation I was having with Revolt’s Jayson Rodriguez about happiness, mediocre music and community service.
The conversation is random, but when your job includes listening to uninspired music day-in and day-out, you have moments when you start questioning your true life’s purpose. But I was excited and interested to hear what Rocky (who I fan out for) had created over the course of his two-year musical hiatus.
There’s commotion in the far left corner of the room.
A$AP Rocky appears from the darkness and strolls behind the DJ booth. His hair is plaited and pulled back into an unkept ponytail. Rocky quickly takes off his jacket, exposing his plum and navy-striped collared shirt. More than likely the shirt was the lovechild of some European designer, but it was too dark to decipher the small logo resting on the left side of his chest.
All eyes are on him.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “If you been on the internet you’d know…”
“We don’t have our phones,” someone yelled before he could finish his sentence. Guests had their phones confiscated upon arrival, and were forced to traditionally communicate with their peers for two anxious hours. “Oh, y’all don’t have your phones?” he countered.
“No,” everyone replied in unison. “Good. Don’t want my shit leaked,” he chuckled. “I was late because I had to drop a video…to give the kids some inspiration tonight.”
The video he was referencing turned out to be the psychedelic “LSD” music video he co-directed with Dexter Navy.
Rocky’s tardiness was forgiven. And in all honesty, most people had no concept of time after handing over their phones hours before. Not to mention, the open bar and lavish food spread was enough to distract any overworked New York City insider.
“Why y’all so far away?” he asked the room.
There were sporadically placed benches that were nailed to the floor, none of which were close enough to Rocky’s DJ. Once that small issue was brought to his attention, Rocky directed everyone standing around to surround the DJ booth. “Come closer.”
Everyone in the room obeyed his ordered and filed in neatly. Some journalists (myself included), decided to make themselves comfortable and sat in front of the DJ booth Indian style like it was “story time” in kindergarten. And in a sense, it was.
All we had was four sheets of yellow notepad paper, folded into a makeshift diary to jot down quotes and our thoughts.
He kicked off the listening session with a Danger Mouse-produced track titled “Holy Ghost” which features a bubbling UK singer/songwriter Joe Fox and Rocky’s actual manager, Chace Infinite, who was once a member of the ’90s hip-hop group Self Scientific.
As one would expect, “Holy Ghost” is a snare-heavy ambient song which sets the tone for the entire album. The phrase “Holy ghost, I’m on my knees,” repeatedly blared over the speakers. It’s dark and drowsy, which isn’t surprising since the album’s executive producers include Danger Mouse, A$AP Yams and Juicy J.
Rocky lets the track softly die out, everyone clapped, and he asked, “What y’all want to hear? What’s y’all in the mood for?”
It was just like school again. You remember those moments when your teacher would ask the entire class a question, but no one said a word in fear of giving the wrong answer.
A voice muttered, “Electric Body.”
“Electric Body? Yeah, they’ll like that one.” Presumably someone from the label had a personal favorite and requested the song she thought was universally likable.
“Electric Body’s” a bubbly song that belongs nowhere else, but in the club. It features Rocky’s frequent collaborator ScHoolboy Q, the London crooner Joe Fox again, and surprisingly the VP of Publicity Theola, who Rocky jokingly referred to as “Theezy.”
Just when you thought the song couldn’t get any better, “shake that ass girl, make that coochie wet” resounded over the 808s. The Hector Delgado-produced track features a sample of Tapp’s “Shake That Ass,” an iconic Baltimore Club song which ruled the clubs in the mid-90s. The party’s quickly interrupted by a chopped and hypnotic break down.
It’s classic Rocky.
Rocky took a moment to serenade the crowd, then he mentioned something about people continuously asking about his new album.
It’s obvious Rocky’s very cognizant of people who’ve been wondering “where he’s been,” but the question’s rhetorical given the fact he’s been visible since the two years he released Long.Live.A$AP.
And lets not forget the instrumental album he was working so tirelessly on (which never was released) and his fiery pursuit of establishing a career in acting, which unlike Beauty and the Beast: Slowed Down Sessions (Chapter 1) came to fruition with his latest role in the new Rick Famuyiwa-directed film DOPE.
Rocky’s been around. He just hasn’t been doing what made him famous – rapping.
Next up, the mention of a skit featuring Hollywood actor James Franco. The shocking development prompted a curious reaction from the room. “This song’s called JD…cause I’m the black James Dean.”
“JD” is gangsta swag rap. Mentions of Arnold Schwarzenegger and block life can be heard, as well as Rocky addressing rappers who have issues within their respective crews, “royalties instead of Rollies for your boys, but the loyalty is dead.”
There are moments when Chace Infinite walks up to Rocky and whispers in his ear. Rocky listens intently, but appears to be unfazed by whatever information his manager chose to share in the middle of such an intimate session.
Aware of time restraints, Rocky keeps the flow of the session pretty speedy. Playing the album in no particular order, Rocky cues up the Hector Delgado and Frans Mernick-produced track “Canal St.” which addresses hip-hop’s little hypocrisy problem. “You say you bust them guns, but I never see you bang. You say you got them drugs, but I never see you slang.”
His head bops up and down as his hands wave to the rhythm of the music. He continues to lip-sync the songs he admitted he was nervous about sharing 10-minutes earlier. “Fuck pretty, I’m gorgeous,” Rocky raps.
When the song ends, Rocky reveals a fun fact: the song features discreet ad-libs from his brother A$AP Ferg.
Rocky goes on to play a thematic track titled “Excuse Me” and attempts to premiere his “LSD” video for the technologically-disabled crowd, but first world problems initially prevent it from going down.
Rocky doesn’t let perils of technology slow him down. He takes a sip from his plastic cup, “This next song…I like this shit a lot. It’s real sexy.”
“Westside Highway” is one of many A.L.L.A. tracks produced by Danger Mouse and features James Fauntleroy and Christina Milian, who can be heard singing background vocals,
Shortly after receiving a signal from members of the label, Rocky attempted to premiere “LSD” once again and the technology gods gave him the green light. The Enter The Void-inspired visual is melancholy, trippy and embodies this unexplained sadness that may have something to do with the unexpected loss of the Mob’s founder, A$AP Yams and the conscious uncoupling from his best friend, Chanel Iman.
Rocky appears to be the happiest he’s been since the unexpected death of A$AP Yams back in January, but there’s still something missing. It’s stating the obvious that Rocky would be much happier if things were “back to normal” and Yams was somewhere in the background making inappropriate jokes, but it’s deeper than that.
Off first listen the music is good, but something in my mind makes me wonder if Rocky’s truly happy and if his love for music is still unwavering.
No one’s ever immune to the indescribable pain and impact of mortality, but the loss of Yams isn’t Rocky’s first time having to cope with the death of someone important in his life while having to maintain a smile through it all. The 26-year-old endured the pain of losing his big brother, who was killed when Rocky was barely pubescent, and in 2012, Rocky’s father passed away, but somehow he’s found the will and strength to keep pushing forward.
And according to Rocky, whoever said you can’t live forever lied. Because the legacy of A$AP is forever.
Rocky would eventually play another Danger Mouse-produced record titled “Pharsyde” and a Kanye West-produced song titled “Jukebox Joints,” which takes listeners back to soul glow ‘Ye with a sample of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles‘ “Much Better Off.”
Somewhere in between “Westside Highway” and “Jukebox Joints,” Rocky played a song he produced himself.
“I didn’t know how to play the piano when I was making this record…I was playing off beat and shit, but take a listen – ‘Dreams’ everybody.”
Soon thereafter, Rocky began shuffling through the playlist he constructed for the listening session. It’s clear he’s trying to decide if he’d like to share 11 songs with us instead of 10, but he opts for the former.
“This is just a preview. I hope you like the journey…toast to that.”
He pauses for a moment. And no one in the room moves.
“I didn’t want to give people what they expected…I don’t want to sound like all these other niggas, but…,” Rocky says as his voice tapers to an incoherent mutter. “I’m making music the way I see it; the way I want to hear it.”
PHOTO CREDIT: RCA Records