In hip-hop only New York, cocky and accomplished and obstinate, casts a shadow this long. The burden of history is especially heavy here, in rap’s birthplace, which is why generations of rappers have done their part to protect the fort. Old styles become sacred texts used for indoctrination. Progress is acceptable, within the lines.
Into that morass comes ASAP Rocky, child of Harlem, with a new idea about how to be a New York rapper. “Live Love ASAP,” his forthcoming debut mixtape, is placeless and universal, an album that sounds as if it has ingested the last 20 years of hip-hop’s travels and would be comfortable anywhere. There’s chewy, slowed-down homages to Houston, flow patterns reminiscent of Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, nods to New Orleans and Atlanta and the Bay Area and everywhere else hip-hop is made. Almost everywhere but New York, it seems.
The old New York, that is. On “Live Love ASAP,” New York has a new role. Once the universal donor, it’s now the universal recipient.
Other cities have been playing that role for years. As New York classicists were holding their ground, the rest of hip-hop looked on, amused, and kept working, taking in outside influences and building their own sounds. Atlanta and Houston and Miami and Atlanta again all took their turn as hip-hop’s center, proving the point that arguing about hip-hop’s center was becoming increasingly anachronistic.
“Live Love ASAP” would be comprehensible in all of those places. It’s a deeply assured and heavily narcotic album on which ASAP Rocky shows off a well-honed style: straight-talking boasts, heavy intake of drugs and women, a deceptive intricacy that reveals itself in bursts of short phrases, rhymed in their entirety. It’s a knowing and confident album, and its pair of slick, fully formed singles, “Purple Swag” and “Peso,” are among the year’s best hip-hop songs.
One afternoon last month, ASAP Rocky, 23, had just woken up in the anonymous Midtown pied-à-terre he’d been renting for a few weeks, a crash pad to weather the coming storm, and a place that could house his extended crew: the wunderkind producer ASAP Ty Beats, who made “Purple Swag” and “Peso”; the Florida libertine Spaceghostpurrp (who took care of Rocky’s younger sister when his mother was ill recently); and others.
Even within Harlem — home of “pizzazz, spunk, charisma, character,” as he puts it — he and his friends were more flamboyant than most, the eccentric outcasts. “We used to wear Gucci loafers when they were still wearing Air Maxes,” he said. “We were the only young cats sipping lean in 2007, 2008, sipping promethazine and codeine.”
Those drugs are the hallmark of the Houston rap scene (and to a lesser degree, Memphis), and they set the tone for “Purple Swag,” a woozy homage to Houston, and the first song of his to receive wide attention. The video, featuring a white girl wearing gold fronts rapping the N-word, didn’t hurt.
That video was released in early July, two months after ASAP Rocky abandoned selling drugs to put his full-time effort into rapping. But while the video received a strong response online, not everyone embraced him.
“New York gave me hell for that ‘Purple Swag,’ man,” he said. “They didn’t respect me until ‘Peso.’ ” “Peso” was released in August, and has already been played on Hot 97 (97.1 FM), the rare hip-hop song that began its life on blogs but sounds perfectly at home amid bigger-money competition.
Within a week of the “Purple Swag” video’s release, ASAP Rocky was taking meetings with major labels — a deal is rumored to be close — or in many cases, dodging them, including asking one executive to take him shopping at Barneys and then skipping the meeting.
Not because he hates Barneys: fashion is central to ASAP Rocky’s persona. “Raf Simons, Rick Owens/ usually what I’m dressed in,” he raps on “Peso.” During the interview he wore jeans from the forward-looking fashion emporium Oak, and at one point he ran off to another room to grab his favorite pair of Margiela sneakers. Standing out stylistically was important to him from a young age. “I used to go to Saks, I would go to Bergdorf, I would go to Barneys, I would go to thrift stores in SoHo.” For Rick Owens, he’d shop online.
Flamboyance is a Harlem tradition, particularly in the world of Cam’ron (and his crew, the Diplomats), who ASAP Rocky grew up admiring. Born Rakim Mayers — named after the iconic rapper of the late 1980s — ASAP Rocky grew up primarily in Harlem. When he was 12 his father went to jail in connection with selling drugs. A year later an older brother he looked up to was killed in Harlem. For a time he lived in a shelter with his mother. A couple of years ago he moved both of them to Elmwood Park, N.J. “I needed peace of mind to be creative, I needed peace of mind because I was getting street money and I didn’t want anybody trying to stick my family up,” he said.
He still returns to Harlem regularly, though, and he is still a New York rapper, albeit a new breed. Classic New York formalism, the style practically invented by ASAP Rocky’s namesake, is a dying language, on the verge of extinction. Given that, it makes sense that the next New York rapper to experience widespread success would leave that sound behind.
This is true despite the fact that it is the best time in years to be a young New York rapper. Talent is abundant, from Fred the Godson to French Montana to Action Bronson to eXquire. But each of these rappers is immediately identifiable as part of the New York rap lineage. Only ASAP Rocky can’t be placed.
It’s worth remembering that great New York rappers have borrowed from the South (and elsewhere) for years, whether it was Biggie Smalls’s bouncier flows, Jay-Z lifting lines from Bun B of UGK, Cam’ron remaking the New Orleans anthem’s “I’m Bout It, Bout It,” or more. Now comes ASAP Rocky, mindful of that past, and also moving beyond it, and slowly showing New York its future.
He’s made a mark at a handful of small New York shows in recent months: at the Alife Rivington store, at a party for the label Fool’s Gold, at a Diplomats concert where he emerged to perform “Peso.”
“It bring a tear to my eye to see native New York people give me my props because New York is stubborn and arrogant,” ASAP Rocky said.
On Saturday he will perform at the Creators Project, an event sponsored by Vice, alongside Clams Casino, who’s produced several of his best songs; next week he’ll perform as part of the annual CMJ festival.
Last month ASAP Rocky made a surprise appearance at the Versace party during Fashion Week. He was brought out by the superstar Drake, who was DJing the party, and who will take ASAP Rocky on tour with him this fall. Later that night Drake was in a small V.I.P. area at the rear of Santos Party House near Chinatown, looking on intently as ASAP Rocky, several ASAP members and dozens of friends of friends crowded the small stage.
It was rowdy and ASAP Rocky was clearly irked, but managed to remain calm, at one point spilling Cristal onto the crowd and telling them, “That’s Jesus juice.”
After about 10 minutes he asked for the crowd’s attention: “If you a pretty girl with heels on, you might want to get to the back for this one.” The light, airy intro to “Peso” boomed through the speakers, and within seconds the room was mayhem. It was an undeniably New York moment.