A$AP Rocky’s Testing: A Journey Through Self-Exploration (Revised)

When listening to a rapper’s entire music catalog, there is often an overarching “sound” that can be found in almost every song. Truly gifted MC’s can bend this sound to fit any project they create regardless of what new, creative route they are pursuing. To Pimp a Butterfly is nothing like DAMN, however when listening to each album it is undeniable they both were crafted by Kendrick Lamar. One rapper that exemplifies having a “sound” better than most is Harlem’s ASAP Rocky. His first three projects (Live.Love.ASAP, Long.Live.A$AP, and At.Long.Last.ASAP) are all cloud-rap staples, filled with dreamy, chopped and screwed slow-tempo beats that conjure images of drug-fueled lavish living. No song on any of these projects could ever be accused of being catchy, but Rocky’s charisma is so damn infectious it keeps bringing you back for more listens.

Lead up to Testing

Nevertheless, after three projects and seven years in the spotlight, ASAP Rocky’s sound started to feel unremarkable. Even a casual listener knew to expect Rocky to rap about high-fashion, drugs, his pretty face (he calls himself Pretty Flacko), and how women love him. Granted all rappers in the history of the hip-hop have covered these topics, but Rocky spent the last few years crafting an identity built on how his clothes and women were better than your favorite rapper’s. Production wise, Rocky and the rest of the ASAP Mob weren’t pushing any boundaries and instead followed a formula of bass heavy beats with a drawled-out voice spewing aggressive comments in the background of every song.What once made ASAP Rocky a colorful new spot on the hip-hop landscape turned into seemingly-predictable expectations of churning out decent background college dorm music. On his most recent album prior to Testing, At.Long.Last, it is painfully obvious that Rocky never stepped outside his comfort zone and just coasted on the sound he knew people already liked. There is the feeling that an attempt to be creative was pursued just for the sake of doing so and was not part of a bigger creative direction. The Harlem rapper was never adventurous enough to contribute groundbreaking social commentary like Kendrick, nor let his charisma do all the work like Migos.

This meant ASAP Rocky was left in hip-hop limbo: a talented rapper with enough of the public’s attention to be criticized, but not enough of it to garner praise for everything he did. Instead of feeling like Rocky’s next album could be the best of the year, hip-hop media outlets such as Complex were announcing its arrival for formality’s sake. This lack of envelope-pushing music coupled with other hip-hop heavyweights dropping projects around the same time, meant Testing came and went largely forgotten even though it was Rocky’s first solo project in three years.

Initial Criticisms

Before getting into the high points, I feel it necessary to point out the album’s shortcomings. First, it is no question that intricate lyrics have never been a part of Rocky’s arsenal, as he prefers to focus on a smooth delivery and emphasized phrases. His approach to lyrics seems to mirror that of (how I assume) he seduces a woman at a party: saying a lot of things that sound cool and serve their purpose, but twenty minutes later she won’t remember a single part of it. For the record I mean that entirely as a compliment; Rocky is excellent at pushing feelings through his limited verses and needs much less runaway to get his points off the ground. That being said, with all the new risks that were taken on this project, I would have expected more investment in complex bars and clever wordplay. Nothing Rocky says ever comes off as corny or poorly executed, yet at the same time there weren’t any lines that blew me away. This could have been remedied by featuring rappers with strong lyrical abilities, but I believe Rocky did not want to take Testing in a traditionally “good” hip-hop direction.

Second, some of the featured artists on the project felt unnecessary and did not adequately match Rocky’s sound. Frank Ocean’s rapping felt forced and is clearly not one of his strengths. I would have preferred to hear Frank give us one of his bone-chilling choruses or contribute to the album’s production instead of trying to do his best impersonation of Tupac. Kodak Black’s attempt to sing is laughable at best, and frankly he should never be allowed to sing on a track ever again. Nonetheless, none of these issues are enough to ruin Testing’s refreshing and unique sound. Hell, Rocky lets you know things are going to be different from the cover art alone; it’s the first major project he has dropped that doesn’t display only himself on the cover.

Album High Points

In spite of not receiving the fame it deserves, Testing is easily ASAP Rocky’s most ambitious, personal, and well-rounded album to date. By illustrating the colorful aspects of fame and power that coincide with his violent drug-dealing past, ASAP Rocky’s album, Testing, evokes powerful emotion regardless of how underdeveloped his lyrics are. The contrast between a glamorous rapper lifestyle and the hardships of a drug-dealer are portrayed throughout the album. These parallels work together to create a dynamic experience for any listener while simultaneously unfolding the Harlem rapper’s introspective approach to seek growth both an artist and an individual.

Production

Rocky’s biggest accomplishment on Testing is perfectly balancing unique production to fit every song’s message while staying true to his dream-like “wavy” sound. Although I personally detested Kodak Black’s vocals recorded over a phone call from jail, it fit “Call Drops” perfectly and added a foreboding dose of reality to the track. Moreover, sampling Moby for the album’s flagship song “ASAP Forever” was bold, but added a flare that wouldn’t have been present if Rocky had gone the Travis Scott route for production (side note: the music video is amazing and I recommend watching it here).

After my first listen of Testing, I was against Rocky’s track list order. I felt that the album was supposed to be autobiographical and flow sequentially from his childhood into fame and present-day. However, upon revisiting the album I found that the original track list order better depicted the rapper’s journey living two completely different lives by jumping between melodic tunes and bass-heavy “bangers.” The track order makes each next song feel like a surprise and Rocky uses these jumps in tone to demonstrate he is learning what is worth caring about, who and what do not matter, and what person he wants to be.

The first track, “Distorted Records,” starts off with about twenty seconds of what sounds like a microphone glitching, or a malfunctioning speaker during a sound check. The noise creates a feeling of anticipation and anxiety, until it is broken by the hard bang of bass and Rocky’s loud, braggadocios lyrics. The rattling, dubstep-like sound of the opening track is faster-paced and more aggressive than anything Rocky had released prior. The excitingly tumultuous opener is abruptly followed by the soothing melodic synths of “ASAP Forever”. This switch in tempo coupled with the pleasing vocals provided by Khloe Anna make the song feel like an escape from a bad dream.

These first two songs demonstrate two different music extremes, with the rest of the tracks all landing somewhere in the middle. “F**k sleep” feels like an ominous account of the appeal surrounding the power and violence that comes with living as a drug dealer. The eerie female vocals at the end of the song act as a siren song to entice any ambitious thugs dreaming of a kingpin lifestyle. “Praise the Lord” is the perfect version of this lifestyle, where a young man can take what he wants, whenever he wants, and no one can stop him. The chorus finds Rocky feeling so good that he thanks god for all that he has taken from others. The cheerfulness of the flute is not to show that he’s necessarily happy, but that he has stopped fighting the uneasiness found in “F**k Sleep” and embraced the violence. No matter how different all the tracks on Testing are from each other, each one feels like it belongs. All the contrasts in tempo, volume, and attitude work together to paint the messy picture that is Rocky’s inner turmoil.

Personal Journey

his last few projects, ASAP Rocky strived to be the best version of a “rapper” persona and follow the stereotypical expectations that came with it. There was always this jock-like cockiness present on his songs; it was as if Rocky knew he was the cool kid at school and didn’t want to take any risks that would jeopardize his position atop of modern hip hop. Interestingly enough, the time Rocky spent working on Testing overlapped with his newfound friendship to hip-hop contemporary, Tyler the Creator. For most of his career, Tyler created loud bangers with immature lyrics and surprising depth. However, Tyler the Creator released his own amazing album, Flower Boy, two months prior to Testing and like Rocky, chose to take a completely different approach to his music that ultimately yielded fantastic results.

While Rocky’s behavior seems to fall into more the traditional idea of masculinity compared to Tyler, I believe getting to know Tyler played a role in how Rocky chose to express his own vulnerability, life experiences, and insecurities on Testing. This album is the first time Rocky really dives into using introspection as a tool to pursue becoming the best artist and person he can be. Although his previous albums were enjoyable, the subject matter was empty and lacked emotion. Sure, it is hard to expect depth when someone is rapping about drugs and women, but Rocky was approaching the topics in a way that resembled a young kid getting his first taste of power and fame in the rap game. This new album is the first time I believe the Harlem MC is showing his true colors, and the changes in his sound reflect the changes he sees in himself.

Most of the tracks on Testing are all part of the same story; the only difference being that some songs feel like Rocky is yelling how you shouldn’t mess with him while on other tracks he tries to give you more background on how his upbringing shaped his attitude. “Buck Shot” goes into the details of living in a broken home, the high expectations his mother had for him in school, and ultimately how his environment made violence an inescapable option that grew into an enjoyable necessity. Other tracks like “Toni Tone” detail the journey of becoming a prominent part of the drug dealing game and pursuing all the glamour and power that came with the risk of death.

“Purity”, and “Changes” are ASAP Rocky’s transition into new problems he is experiencing as a global star. He comments on how police still mistreat people from his neighborhood, how he feels lonely and detached from the world, and how there doesn’t seem to be anybody he can trust. These two tracks in particular find Rocky at his most vulnerable and honest; his decision to express his desire for love and fulfillment are confessions even the most die-hard ASAP Rocky fans wouldn’t have expected to find on any of his albums. I personally love one verse on “Changes,” as it resembles a modern take of Andre 3000’s verse on the 2007 hit “International Player’s Anthem.” While Andre’s version is coming from a place of content self-reflection, Rocky’s instead focuses on his self-destructive tendencies to look for love in the wrong places. Both songs represent ASAP Rocky acknowledging all the different changes taking place around him and wanting to find peace in himself. Unfortunately, it is a battle he seems to be losing and doesn’t know how to react besides falling into the rapper lifestyle of women and drugs.

“Brotha Man” is Rocky receiving advice from an older gentleman in Harlem that puts everything into perspective. There is a moment of remembering all the good memories from his childhood and all the bad from living in an impoverished area. However, the main point of the message is for Rocky to be thankful for he went through and to stay true to what he believes in. Additionally, both “Brotha Man” and “Changes” display how Rocky has a great deal of respect for those who came before him in his area and in hip-hop; he demonstrates a desire to want to replicate all the good his idols have done for their communities by taking a similar path himself.

“ASAP Forever” is the culmination of everything ASAP Rocky covered in his album. It is a balance of all the highs and lows he experienced, and how at the end of the day he is always going to care about himself, hip hop, and his crew. This anthem details how regardless of all the negative things Rocky has had to live through, this is the life he is meant to live, and he would not trade it for anything.

Overall…

Testing represents the growth of a young, good-looking rapper with all the talent in the world learning how to use his gifts to talk about his strengths, weaknesses, and how he has been shaped by his experiences. Although ASAP Rocky’s body of work lacks the social commentary and cultural impact of a Kendrick Lamar or Tupac, the personal demons he talks about are just as real. However, what makes ASAP Rocky’s sound so special is his refusal to ever be viewed as adequate. Cockiness is not Rocky’s flaw, but his superpower that has gotten him to a level of fame worthy of his charisma. Introspection is now another addition to Rocky’s musical arsenal and has added a new level of depth and maturity to his projects that I expect to see be manipulated however he chooses to do so on all his future albums. Testing is an exemplary work that shows the hip-hop world that this Harlem rapper is not just another pretty face; but an artist that, for the first time, has figured out exactly who he wants the world to see him as.