Yeezy season is not only approaching, but is in full-floating production and execution mode at this very minute, with a one-two-three G.O.O.D. Music-projects released Friday after Friday across May and June, packaged and delivered to us all mere mortals in form of excellent 7-track albums by Pusha T (Daytona), Kanye West (ye), as well as the most recent Ye and Kid Cudi’s hip-hop duo Kids See Ghosts eponymous debut record. In parallel, a mildly progressively heating Southern European late Spring period brought yours truly to the mighty international (but actually very British) fashion show that is Barcelona’s Primavera Sound. Whilst live music was nonchalantly put to the side in favour of Instagram selfies and enhanced drug use, I did manage to find some of the hidden stages and check out astonishing and enthralling live performances by artists such as the garçon Tyler, The Creator, baroque rock and roll monsieurs Arctic Monkeys, mega cat Thundercat, dangerously honest hood minstrel Vince Staples, and Swiss black metal primordial chanters Zeal & Ardor. Most importantly though, and way more prominently tied to the present music review piece, I got to catch the closing headline bill set by New York rapper A$AP Rocky, which followed the release of the A$AP Mob member’s third studio album Testing mere days before on 25th May. These two events combined made for quite the relevant alignment between Lord Flacko’s artistic manifestation and myself, so much so that it officially triggered an ARM alert and so here we are taking a closer scrutiny of this star-studded and featured record.
Quite similarly to what the preconditions were going into ARM’s recent effort on J. Cole’s last LP KOD, there is a little PSA/full disclosure statement that needs to be outlined, so as to better contextualise the present review of Testing: I secretly never liked A$AP Rocky and everything he represented, and almost never listened to anything coming from him nor A$AP Mob to be completely honest. After all, I come from a completely different background involving primarily alternative rock, hardcore, and punk, so I guess this mustn’t come as an unbelievable surprise. With that being said, as trap and cloud rap started to steal rock’s scene, both at live gigs’ mosh pits and in the charts, I too inevitably got caught in the current mainstream hip-hop fever, up to a point where now some of my favourite artists are prima donna MCs. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s delve into Rocky’s new studio LP, released under RCA Records and composed of 15 tracks, for almost 55 minutes of running time made of freshly baked new material. For Testing, the Harlem rapper-producer lined up a wealth of collaborators and contributors, ranging from the aforementioned Kid Cudi to Frank Ocean, to Skepta and Snoop Dogg. But spoiler alert, no one truly ever managed to take the full spotlight away from Rocky on this one, as he finds himself venturing into vastly experimental fields of industrial-trap hip-hop, while at the same time distilling pure moments of superior melodic craft.
The otherworldly and subterranean bass frequencies accompanying savage and fiery opener “Distorted Records” are something very rarely heard on mainstream projects, yet A$AP Rocky manages to pull it off in a very slick and contextual manner, whereby the inherent nature of the cut couldn’t be better epitomised by the literal name of the song. Such an opening high-note is well maintained throughout track number two, the album’s lead single “A$AP Forever“, sampling Moby’s pop crown jewel “Porcelain” and pairing a tastily belligerent flow with aspirational and tongue-in-cheeky bars (“I put A$AP on my tat / I put New York on the map / I put the gang on the flames / They gon’ remember the name“). “Tony Tone” at number three is a definite grower that showcases one of Rocky’s standout solo performances on this project, firing an abrasive warped groove filled with hooky sections and leveraging repetitions to make its way into the listeners’ psyches. The 101 on contemporary mumble rap/trap that follows, “Fukk Sleep”, enlisting the help of an extinguished FKA twigs, fails to leave a proper permanent mark, both as a standalone cut and as when placed in context with the full album, ending up being a pretty forgettable track overall. Second single “Praise the Lord (Da Shine)” featuring British grime don Skepta closes the first third of Testing with what seems like a fairly safe choice, both collaboration-wise and with respect to greater melody and harmonic textures, wrapping up an album section that promised so much after its first two teasers but that actually faded a little bit in quality as the tracklist progressed.
Sadly, “CALLDROPS” at number six does nothing in the way of uplifting the downward momentum of the album at this point, boldly continuing a pretty irritating trend pertaining to mainstream hip-hop records consisting of randomly including (real or staged) phone voicemail messages and turning them into actual tracks through a dubious genius spark of inspiration, not even remotely tied to the growing instinct of strategically increasing the number of album tracks so as to leverage modern streaming payout rate counts by dominant services like Spotify and Apple Music. Fortunately, the excellently produced and experimental “Buck Shots” delivers one of the highest and most fortunate moments on the album, driven by addictive and fun lyrical motifs (“Homeboy you ain’t know (ends where they buck shot) / Had a bitch suckin’ on a lollipop at the bus stop / Green Glock, red Glock (buck shot) / They ain’t really ready for me when I— (buck shot) / They ain’t really ready for me when I— (buck shot)”) as well as fitting beat switches and in-composition transitions that make the song go by in two shakes. The following set of three tracks (“Guns N Butter”, “Brotha Man”, and “OG Beeper”) ascribe some confusion and surging anonymity to the record’s mid-section that not even some A-list credited and uncredited collabs (Juicy J, French Montana, Snoop Dogg) are able to salvage, only for said clumsiness to be overcome by another fantastic cut in the form of the beautifully harmonised and sung ballad “Kids Turned Out Fine” (admittedly Rocky’s favourite song off Testing).
The latter record also doubles as introduction to the last third of the album, and boy oh boy, was this worth the wait as well as a couple bumpy and subpar listens on the way of getting here. Every single track wrapping up this project in its latter section is a spectacular, handsomely crafted trap gem in its own peculiar way: from the dreamy, cloudy, chorus-y, and gigantically bigger-than-life “Hun43rd” (where I’ll go as far to say it might be one of the best songs this rap genre has seen in recent memory), to the introspective and fully confessional sentimental opus “Changes” (look out for the staggering beat/mood switch at 2:55 on this one), passing through the social critique and cathartic, punching lyricism of “Black Tux, White Collar” (“I say motherfuck you ni**as for the hate that you investin’ (yeah) / Fuck police cause he probably wanna arrest me (check it out) / Fuck the prison system, this injustice was ingestive (slatt) / All black tuxes, get the white collars jealous like / All my role models either dead or in the pen’ / I had no choice to be the ni**a that I am / Stuck with bros, stuck the code (yeah) / ‘Cede emblem on the fender (yeah)“).
The Frank Ocean-featured “Purity” acts as emblematic curtains close to the 15-track Testing in form of a gently guitar-picking lick leading A$AP Rocky’s growling distorted vocals, before making way to some of the best rapping and flow Ocean has shown in a while, taking up much of the song’s compositional and delivery substance pushing Rocky (and rap goddess Lauryn Hill, who’s featured in multiple spots on this cut) to taking care of vocal harmonising in the background. To be fair, such laid-back, supporting role of Rocky is not representative of the best material found on this album, whereby overall, the sensation is rather that the tracks stuffed with notable third-party features overshadowing Lord Flacko end up leaving something to be wished for (see particularly “Fukk Sleep”, “Praise the Lord [Da Shine]”, and “Brotha Man”). Contrarily, this album leaves its strongest marks and is at its most convincing precisely in those moments and situations where the perception is that A$AP Rocky is fully and wholly himself, for good and bad, in all his flaws, excellences, and vulnerabilities (case in point, the visceral “Distorted Records”, or the gorgeous “Buck Shots”, or again the album’s best four minutes with “Hun43rd”). J. Cole has recently demonstrated how even huge mainstream rappers can put out a whole record without a single external collab – albeit with mixed success – and now that I’m thinking about it, by naming this album Testing Rocky perhaps wasn’t actually hinting at its sonic and thematic experimentation, but he rather wanted us listeners to test out his individual artistic craftsmanship finding its qualitative peak, at the same time creating a legitimate precedent for what could grow into an actual, truly solo LP as its next big follow-up.
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
2018, RCA Records