This is what you know about A$AP Rocky: His real name is Rakim Mayers. He’s 24-years old. He was born in Harlem, but musically, he might seem to be from Houston. He's an attitude-driven New York rapper with a steady diet of thick, Southern-fried beats and smoky verses about purple swag. He's seen his father sent to jail for dealing and his brother murdered. He's rocketed from street posse mixtape success to a $3 million major label deal in 2011. His interests, outside of music, include high-end designer apparel, wandering the streets of SoHo, weed, video games, and bad bitches. (And “artsy girls.") He is, in his own words, “mad laid-back.”
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This is what you don’t know about A$AP Rocky: He just complimented me on my shoes.
Huddled in a dreary corner conference room of Sony’s 550 Madison Avenue headquarters, Rocky and I had just wrapped up a half-hour discussion on the state of hip-hop and his highly-anticipated studio debut, “LoveLiveA$AP.” It’s media junket day and, after talking to every interested music blogger in New York City, I was the last interview of the afternoon. Rocky’s handlers insist it’s time for him to leave, although we could talk for another hour.
As we get up, Rocky flashes a warm smile and looks down at my feet.
“Dope loafs, bro.”
I pause for half a second.
The clumsy, swaggerless blogger?
Flattered, my chest puffs out a bit. I thank him, gushing in amusement that one of the best-dressed rappers on the scene just lauded my choice in footwear. Interview wrapped, we pose for a photo, though I don’t have the heart to tell him that my tan, weathered Bacco Bucci driving shoes were a $65 Nordstrom Rack special, plucked from a clearance bin in October. These “dope loafs” are hardly high fashion; just a birthday present from my mother. She'll be proud to know that they’ve been complimented by an esteemed member of hip-hop’s glitterati.
The compliment cuts to the core of who A$AP Rocky really is: One hell of a charming motherfucker, with the ability to electrify a room with a 1000-volt shock of charisma. He's genuine about it, too, and his fans lap it up, maybe because they are young and starved for a relatable emcee with a Dickensian rise to fame. Or maybe because Rocky can effortlessly rap about weed, threads, and girls without coming across like a pompous egomaniac dickhead, spoiled by one’s own success.
Many verses on “LongLiveA$AP” are peppered with Rocky’s flavor of biographical real-talk. On the trippy, ominous title track, he opens with the following invocation: “I thought I'd probably die in prison, expensive taste in women/ Ain't had no pot to piss in, now my kitchen full of dishes.” He's also not afraid to flirt with arrogant rap hubris, reminding listeners on “Goldie,” that “Yes, I'm the shit, tell me do it stink?/ It feel good wakin' up, some money in the bank/Three model bitches, cocaine on the sink/ And I'm so 'bout it 'bout it, I might roll up in a tank.”
With his freshman album poised for mainstream success, now's the time for Rocky to redline the career wattage meter. “I really had a vision for what I wanted it to be. As far as the music, it’s there. But in terms of all that filler around it, it actually turned out better than what I wanted it to be,” Rocky says.
When I meet Rocky, he's cloaked in a black Prohibit NYC jersey tee. He is eating a chopped salad from a deli while watching this video on WorldStarHipHop.
We laugh together, then immediately jump immediately into a discussion about "LongLiveA$AP."
“As you can see with this new album, I’m on some new hip-hop shit. I’m not on that old shit. I don’t fuck with that old shit. That shit is whack. That shit is corny. I can’t relate to all these other motherfuckers because I’m not a motherfucker who goes to the club wearing 30 chains with ice on it and sunglasses and making it rain and shit. I’m just being honest, because that’s corny. I don’t do that,” Rocky tells me.
“If you see me with a bottle in a club, I got it for free. That’s not my life. I’m not about that life. Well, I could be about it, but it’s boring to me. I would prefer to get in the studio or in the crib, watching cartoons, smoking weed, and thinking about some creative shit. That’s what I’d prefer to be doing than to be in a club with the loud music that I don’t like and my back hurting and fucking bitches all in my face and shit. This shit is not the life, you know what I mean?”
To truly understand the rise of A$AP Rocky, one needs to understand the generational sea change that’s taken place in commercial hip-hop over the past four years. As the Lil Waynes and Kanye Wests of the world ballooned in mainstream popularity, the Odd Futures and A$AP Mobs climbed the ranks of a younger hip-hop counterculture. Twitter and YouTube were their artistic battleaxes, causing a brand new class of rappers with indie roots to explode in popularity all seemingly at once: Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, the Creator, Machine Gun Kelly, Joey Bada$$, Meek Mill. Etc. etc.
Rocky is passionate about this new era of hip-hop. He describes its coming of age as “anarchy” and notes his use of the American flag distress symbol as a metaphor for hip-hop's changing of the guard. “We have upside-down American flags. We have camouflage and war gear and shit. All of it is a metaphor for what we’re fighting for. We want to show them that we’re all one generation and that things like discrimination shouldn’t exist anymore. If you look at 'LiveLoveASAP,' it’s the same shit. Except instead of the flag being behind me, it’s kind of the weight of the world on my shoulders now.
“What I really have to do is that I have to revolutionize our generation.”
When asked about older rappers passing the torch to younger guys, Rocky lashes out with his most damning critique of the genre as a whole. He blasts rap’s culture of harsh criticism:
“How did a music genre ever become so bourgeois? You know, people always want to voice their opinions when it comes to hip-hop. I feel like rappers get criticized more than any type of artist.
“Like, hip-hop is really the only type of genre that doesn’t embrace its artists. If anything, [artists] hate [other artists]. And I hate that mentality. “
So what cultural change is Rocky striving for? A fair playing field and artistic justice, for one:
“I really want us to all be equal. There’s nothing I hate more than, like, racist people and fucking bias. People who are like hypocrites and shit. I hate those kind of people. People who pass judgment and patronize people all day. Scrutinize. I want it to be a new day in hip-hop, basically."
Simple enough, right? Wrong. Older rappers can be flagrantly stubborn in their artistic tastes. In fact, Rocky seems ready to wage an all-out offense against older emcees and producers who fail to embrace the genre’s changing tides:
“I’m not even saying that their time is over. I don’t mind older rappers… as long as their content is relevant to my era. When you have rappers that are out of touch, they get aggravated with the stuff that’s going on. They go: ‘Oh man, these young guys don’t know what’s going on out here. This ain’t rap. What the fuck is this shit? They ain’t rappers. This is some gay shit. These niggas are on some fuckin’ weird shit over here.’ That’s all they talk about. They’re mad because what they’re doing is just not tasteful. They only appeal to a certain crowd – not even a demographic – a crowd, because it’s so small. You know what I’m saying? What you’re talking about everyone is talking about. You’re talking about how you’ve been in jail? I can put on Tupac for that. I don’t need no modern day motherfucker for that. You’re talking about how you got sliced in the face – I can put on some Mob Deep for that. Or you’re talking about how you sold drugs – I can put on some Master P for that, man. I don’t need an old nigga to tell me 'oh shit.'”
He takes a breath, “That’s why I embrace young brothers and rappers like Earl Sweatshirt and Joey Bada$$ and shit like that. Because you know why? Because those motherfuckers are actually saying something and they’re sick. And they’re young."
And then he pauses reflectively, mid-rant:
“I’m not afraid for them to come take my spot… because we’re in two different spots. What they do and what I do are two different things, you know? I can do what they do, though, but at the end of the day I do what I do.”
Much more than Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, MAAD City,” “LongLiveA$AP” entwines a patchwork of younger talent into album’s the overall artistic fabric. In fact, it’s stacked. There are two tracks with beats by Clams Casino. Two with beats by Hit-Boy. Guest spots include Santigold, ScHoolboy Q, Florence Welch, Gunplay, and A$AP Ferg. In an EDM/rap melding of molly-popping worlds, he teams up with Skrillex to make “Wild for the Night.” The feature guest spots on “1Train,” the album’s “posse cut,” reads like who’s who list of rap in 2013: Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T. In conversation, I compare it to a Yankees roster:
“It’s a posse cut, man. All the young cats, man. You see what I’m doing? I’ve got to man… See, the thing is… Rappers get on and they don’t do that. They don’t show love… Sigh… Ah, man.
“I don’t mess with who’s ‘hot.’ It’s not about who’s ‘hot’ for me. It about who has it. Who’s talented? Who do I respect on a musical level? Who’s an artist? All of those people who I feature are artists. The only 'rapper' I have a song with on my album is 2 Chainz. He’s the only rapper and he’s only on a hook. Other than that, I don’t have any other rappers. “
Why the collaboration with Skrillex? Essentially, it’s a cross-genre musical bromance:
“Like, me and Sonny, we’ve been friends for a while, we just never did music. I don’t know if people really care, but there are pictures from a year ago of us chilling and hanging out at parties and underground raves spots and shit like that, you know what I’m saying? Me and Skrillex is who I’m talking about. We hung out so much that it got to a point when we used to be in the studio and it was like, 'Fuck it, let’s just do something…'"
The album’s second single, “Fuckin Problems,” features Drake, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar. When I bring up the record’s production, Rocky lights up: “It’s a dope record. It’s an ignorant record. It’s IGNORANT… As FUCK. ‘I love bad bitches!’ That’s all it’s talking about. You know what I’m saying? But bitches love that song. If you ever went to a party and it comes on, they love that shit.”
Which brings us to the subject of Rocky’s taste in women. In “Fashion Killa,” Rocky drops a full verse waxing about his ideal girl, a mellow yet sophisticated fashionista: “Rockin', rollin', swaggin' to the max. My bitch a fashion killa, she be busy poppin' tags. She got a lotta Prada, that Dolce & Gabbanna…. She jiggy like Madonna, but she trippy like Nirvana Cause everything designer.”
This past summer, Rocky told GQ’s Britain edition about his fondness for “artsy girls.” I ask him to elaborate.
“I love a woman -- If you guys know a girl like this, please just hook up with me? Thank you -- I love woman who can shop with me. And I’m talking about know all this shit. It’s just clothes, but at the end of the day, it’s something I’m into. And it’s not that serious for me. It’s not like I’m the fashion police or a spokesperson for fashion or something. But I would prefer a woman who’s capable or intelligent enough to buy or know my style without me even being there. Basically I just like a women that can compliment and contribute to my style.
“I love artsy women. I love gifts... Like when girls paint for you and shit? Big ass pictures? That’s just sexy as fuck. There’s no way around that. That’s just dope as hell when you receive a painting from a girl. It’s like… man, that’s so dope. I don’t know, man, that stuff just turns me on like a motherfucker. Girls with like streaks of weird colors in their hair… I’m just into some next shit. I love those types of girls…"
Next, we move on to the rampant overuse of the word "swag," a term Rocky helped propel into the popular vernacular with "Purple Swag" in 2011. Now, it's overused to the point of ad nauseam.
"I hate that shit. But I still use it. It’s one of those paradoxes, like a real big contradiction. I hate what… Like the 'Comme des Fuckdown' beanies and all that other shit? That’s like the swag shit. But, I think it’s funny when I say something then go “swag swag swag.” But I don’t really be like… 'Swag' just to pump that shit."
2012 wasn't exactly the easiest year for the Harlem rapper. Although he released LongLiveA$AP's first single, "Goldie," in March and A$AP Mob's " Lords Never Worry" mixtape in August, Rocky made headlines for a string of fights and legal issues. At SXSW show in March, Rocky entered the crowd to fight a fan who was throwing beer cans. Scheduled to perform on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on July 20, the rapper was arrested the night before for a street brawl in Manhattan. While allegedly “engaging in a verbal dispute” with another person on the street, he allegedly assaulted two bystanders attempting to take his picture, sending one to the hospital, according to reports. On the day of our interview, literally minutes after he complimented me on my loafers, TMZ reported Rocky was pleading guilty to grand larceny in a plea deal to drop the assault and robbery charges. Still, reports emerged on New Year's Eve that he was being sued for assault by a victim. Another fight broke out in Miami between Spaceghostpurrp’s Raider Klan and the ASAP Mob in November. To make matters worse, his father, who named him "Rakim" after the influential MC, passed away, shortly after Christmas.
I'm here to discuss music, though, and questions about Rocky's altercations and run-ins with the law don't come up. I do, however, tell him he's going to have a huge year in 2013.
"I hope you’re right," he says quietly.
So what's next in the cards A$AP Rocky? What's the five-year plan?
"I’m really a small entrepreneur, so I don’t know. But I doubt it will be a bad situation wherever I’m at. I hope it’s going to be a good one."
He's confident in the direction he's headed.
"I know I’ll be successful. I just want to inspire, man. I just really want to inspire. People are forgetting what this whole purpose is for; music is supposed to be uplifting and touching. It’s supposed to be inspirational. I just want to inspire, man."
No matter what sort of mainstream success results from the release of "LongLiveA$AP," he's just going to keep on being himself. Smiling. Amicable. Cool. This is what you need to know about A$AP Rocky: Whatever happens, he's not going to be "a bitch."
"I don’t really like to glorify negative shit like selling drugs and shit, but any time you hear me use it in context or talk about it in my music is because I experienced it. It’s really something I experienced and I’ve seen. My brother was murdered. I’ve seen people get killed. I’m not no big gangster, you know what I mean? But, at the same time, I’m not no bitch. Haha. I’m just me: Cool kid. Harlem. Ready to make some fucking changes in this fucking shithole we call the world.
"What’s to hate about my situation? I love it, man. It’s doing art and getting complimented for it. That’s just the best."