After attaining a notorious status in rap with two acclaimed albums, not to mention considerable fashion clout. The last year has seen A$AP Rocky become more reclusive than ever before. On Tuesday night at Red Bull Music Studios in Manhattan, Rocky braved the critics and played some of his most personal music yet to an intimate crowd. The attending group of journalists, industry professionals, and select hypebeasts were privy to a new side of the artist’s identity.
At a time when most people want Rocky to step out and compete with his contemporary rap counterparts with a huge club record—he’s decided to do the opposite. Rocky has created a body of work that is thoughtful, introspective, and melancholic. As much inspired by life and death as the influence of psychedelics. The tragic death of A$AP Mob co-founder, A$AP Yams, has changed the trajectory of Rocky’s new album. After segments of A.L.L.A started popping up online there was a notable silence in the wake of Yams’ passing. It’s obvious that the loss of his close friend and collaborator has affected Rocky both as a person and as a musician. He’s focused less on material things, exploring complex issues, and singing more than ever before on this album.
The location of the secret listening session wasn’t disclosed until an hour before the billed 8pm start time. While I had expected to show up at an abandoned bodega somewhere in Central Harlem, it ended up taking place in a posh two-story venue downtown in the heart of Chelsea. Security was tight. On arrival they stripped us of our phones, computers, cameras, and any sort of recording device. Posters of the new album’s cover placed above the open bar, showing Rocky’s face overlaid with Yams’ signature birthmark. It’s a touching homage to his lost friend.
I arrived at the prescribed time, but it would be naïve to expect the same of Rocky. During the wait, I took advantage of the free prosecco, made friends with a girl with green hair, browsed the venue’s gift shop and tried to chat up a crowd of cool kids in the smoking section. Said cool kids had built an impressive pile of cigar boxes on a nearby bench thanks to their weed-smoking ventures. I thought they might be friends of A$AP due to their flagrant lack of fucks given. This suspicion was confirmed when a white guy in a FILA jumper turned around to reveal a “YAM$” tattoo above his right eyebrow that complemented a Champion symbol tatted behind his right ear.
Around 9:30, MTV’s Sway showed up—no doubt aware of celebrity time-zone dilation. Then, an hour later the DJ announced that Pretty Flacko was in the building and encouraged everyone to make their way downstairs to the dance floor. It wasn’t long before Rocky emerged from a back room and headed to the booth, greeting Sway and a handful of other industry guests along on the way.
With the sparse lighting, the most prominent visual on Rocky’s body was his iced-out grill that lit up the room. He seems nonchalant about all furor he’s created by building the anticipation for his arrival. Once he picked up the microphone, he welcomed everyone, thanking them for sticking around so long. (“My favorite time is to come fashionably late.”) Jewellery aside, he’s dressed down in a navy and burgundy rugby top with jeans—his braids pulled back into a ponytail.
He addresses the crowd, “If you check your phones, you’ll find something interesting.”
“They took our phones,” some guy replies from the audience.
“That’s okay, you’ll just hear it right now,” Rocky replies, nonplussed.
We begin our auditory study of A.L.L.A. with the opener, ‘Holy Ghost’. Danger Mouse, who’s responsible for most of the album, features on production.
“No phones?” he questions before hitting play, “Okay, it’s intimate.”
The song begins with a classic rock sample composed of prominent guitars. Rocky mimes along with the lyrics questioning church and religion—taking control of the crowd. He’s feeling it. It’s different. Where before he name-dropped Raf Simons, now he’s passing judgement of people who just want to stunt at Sunday service. When it ends, he asks everyone to come closer to him, and people start moving from the back to sit on the floor near him. As he speaks, his voice remains even and calm.
“If you must know why I was late,” he starts, “it was because I wanted to drop a video so we’d have something to talk about.”
As the team queued his video on the projector, he invited the crowd to smoke weed–a request declined by the majority of the crowd. “Oh y’all trying to be professional,” he chides us. While waiting for the video, Rocky opened the forum to requests. A woman standing near the stage blurts out, “Electric Body!”
“Oh you ratchet,” Rocky jokes before queuing the track.
This is the only song of the night that feels carefree, as Rocky sings an old club sample with glee—”Shake that ass, girl. Make that coochie wet.” The cut features a verse from Schoolboy Q, and a guest female vocalist who implores the ladies not to suck dick for free. This is definitely one song we’ll be hearing more of in the future when Rocky decides he’s finally ready to loosen up in the clubs.
For now, though, his voice remains controlled as he charms the crowd. He sings along while making hand motions towards the entourage of assorted-coloured hipsters standing nearby.
As the song comes to an end, and our annoying male audience member yells out again, “They took my phone, man.”
Rocky takes it in stride. “It’s okay. Get you a drink, man.”
Next, he introduces what he calls a skit, featuring James Franco.
“I’m the black James Dean,” Rocky proclaims over the mic. The song begins with a quintessential A$AP flow, before James Franco speaks. The odd pairing relate via a mutual love of James Dean. When that’s over, the annoying same guy in the audience requests something that is “Wild for the night.”
“What?” Rocky questions. Then, dismissing him, “We’re gonna play some chill shit instead.” He queues a track called ‘Canal Street’ that features LA rapper, Bones. It’s another reflective track, a recurring theme of the evening. This cut references Rocky’s come up from roaches to brooches, contrasting the days of buying gold on Canal Street with more recent sneakers buying trips in Paris. It ends quickly and before I can commit to memory Rocky starts up another one, ‘Excuse Me’.
When this album comes out, you can expect to hear ‘Excuse Me’ played everywhere. Featuring dreamy guitars that evoke Beach House, it’s definitely a stand out from the album. The way the song builds from an unrelenting rap cut before switchign to a melodic sonic journey from first verse to second gives it the potential to become a de-facto hipster party anthem.
After much technical difficulty, Rocky’s team finally got his new video ‘LSD’ up on the screen. With his back turned to the crowd, Rocky concentrated on the screen as the video played— studying, or perhaps reliving, it. Flashing images of Tokyo partnered with stimulating lights and disorienting camera work call Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void to mind. After the session Rocky confirmed that the film was the source material for the video. It’s hard not to draw contrasts between the film’s exploration of DMT and the nature of existence, and the vulnerability in Rocky’s voice as he sings on the cut. It’s one more reference to death to add to this album’s already growing list.
When the clip ends, he introduced a song called ‘Westside Highway’, produced by Danger Mouse with vocals from James Fauntleroy. Rocky takes another stab at singing here too with good melodies and a slowed-down baby-Busta-Rhymes flow in the beginning. This track feels like it’s on a list called “Something For The Ladies”. At this point it’s hard to tell what exactly Rocky is going for with this album, all the songs seem to oscillate between up-tempo or brooding dark tracks.
It’s interesting to watch him completely rock out in his own world as his more down-tempo songs play and a somewhat awkward crowd chills around him. There’s a sense that he made At Long.Last.A$AP for himself, creating songs that he can enjoy himself regardless of external interpretation. In some ways it’s a departure from the charismatic and likeable Rocky that we’ve come to know in the past few years.
The next song is, ‘Dreams’, and Rocky states that he played the piano on it, but had a producer fix it for him because he was playing off beat. The song ends with pointed lyrics—”I had a dream like Martin King/police brutality was on my TV screen/Harmony is all we need.” Rocky picks up the microphone and addresses what the room is thinking. “Y’all didn’t expect any of this. I just wanted to make some dope shit because I don’t want to be like the rest of these niggas out here.”
We move into ‘Jukebox Jam’, a track produced by Kanye West. This is an interesting pairing, as a fellow fashion influencer Rocky seems to be relating to Kanye and his aspirations in fashion and acting. He makes reference to a Liberace-like lifestyle, and mentions that he took a year off rap to learn to make beats. The last song played is ‘Pharcyde’, also produced by Danger Mouse. Rocky gives a shout out to one of the guys standing towards the back of his entourage named Joe Fox, who appears as a vocalist on at least five of the album’s songs. Fox’s vocals supports Rocky through this introspective track with a raw delivery that questions life, and send up prayers.
“I’m about to get drunk,” Rocky declares as the track comes to an end. It’s 11:30, and the DJ resumes the medley of 50 Cent and Ludacris classics he was playing earlier. Rocky makes his way into the crowd to mingle and converse. This is a new version of A$AP Rocky. He’s confident in this lane but the swaggering Lord Flacko is showing us a new, more humble side of himself.
A.L.L.A is out June 2 via Sony.