Kellen Fredrickson // Evan Dale // May 29, 2018
As the two founders and creative minds behind this magazine, music has obviously always been a longstanding point of connection for our friendship. And there is perhaps no artist who better incapsulates that friendship than A$AP Rocky. An important, almost mythological figure on our creative influences from fashion to music, Rocky is one of the artists that both of us admire, respect, and love most.
Needless to say, the long-winded buildup to Testing was, as it was for all Rocky fans, a long and arduous process. But now that it's here, we have both agreed to indulge in the album free of each other's opinions and pen our responses to the project in order to compare our thoughts before influencing one another with discussion. Those organic responses read below.
What is the mark of a great album?
Interestingly enough, most people would respond that the music alone is the answer.
In all honesty, they aren’t wrong. But it seems extremely surface level to bestow a label of quality upon something as common as decent, simplistic musicality.
For a long time now, Rakim Mayers has been at the pinnacle of hip-hop. Not only are his own albums and tours white hot, but ASAP and subsequently AWGE have become absolute king of industry.
Record label, entertainment juggernaut, apparel, you name it, the ASAP-AWGE umbrella likely encompasses it.
In many ways, music is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the business activities the King of Purple has been involved in.
But in many ways, people argue that his extracurricular creative indulgences detract from the quality of music A$AP Rocky has released in recent years.
You see, there are two schools of thought in this world when it comes to music.
There are those who would curse the day an artist attempts to expand even a hairs breadth from the auditory stylings from which they began the course.
There are those who would fiercely defend any new release as a means of demonstrating their devotion to their favorite artist.
But this falls into neither category.
Two incredible albums. Each an exploration of Rocky’s ability as a lyricist and producer, recall his lyric “Took a whole year off just to learn to make beats”.
At.Long.Last.A$AP represented an important departure from Rocky’s freshman album. For every ounce of gritty and ethereal production that went into Long.Live.A$AP., his second release was polished, deliberate, and still held that quintessential psychedelia cynicism that Rocky had become so well known for.
And of course, it still banged in the headphones.
But after such a long respite following the debut of his second album, I think it’s safe to say all A$AP Rocky fans were ready for something to blow them away.
The sad part is, most people may not be, and for completely the wrong reasons.
But then again, they’re missing the point.
Testing is not a plug-and-play club album.
It’s not a tune in, turn up, and drop out album.
It is great. But probably not for the reason most people would think.
The mark of a great leader is someone who elevates the ability of those around them.
The mark of a great artist is someone who takes things you never had thought of before and constructs them into a final product that somehow astonishingly works.
Anything worthwhile is polarizing. Nothing that ever meant anything would make you feel indifferent.
Whether you love it or hate it, Testing checks that box.
Furthermore, it’s incredible to see the number of features Rocky has on this album. More than he ever has before.
And not from artists you would expect. Moby, FKA Twigs, Kodak Black, T.I., many of these hyper-talented and extremely popular artists that have never worked with the Brooklyn native appear on tracks of this album, and are so willing to give way to his experimental influence.
And here’s the kicker: it works.
Songs like Fukk Sleep, Praise the Lord, Gunz n Butter, and Purity. All feature incredible artists, and in each case they’re seemingly at the top of their game.
Skepta with the London-town vibes on a classic Rocky beat.
FKA Twigs with ethereal vocals on a low fidelity track.
Even Frank Ocean on Purity. Shit, we all knew the man had bars ever since his release of the Endlessvisual album, but it seems with each release, we see a new extent of that gift. The blend of Rocky’s signature production mixed with Ocean’s incredible vocal range may make this a favorite track on the album.
And that’s why this album is great.
Throughout, Rocky plays with strange samples, enigmatic beat patterns, and experimental production queues.
And every person featured performs beautifully within this bizarre construct.
Not only is it different than anything we’ve heard from Rocky, it’s different from anything we’ve ever gear, period.
It’s fucking good.
Rocky is not the man he was when Peso exploded onto the rap scene of old nearly a decade ago.
So, why should his music not follow suit of his greater growth and experimentalism?
Still trademarked by classic Rocky flows on songs like Distorted Records, OG Beeper, and Buckshots, Testing is a creative departure from your typical rap album at a time when rap typical is depatrting from its very self.
If you think of it, isn’t that the point?
The difficulties undermining the efforts of any long-awaited release are prevalent unless such a release is both exceeding of its expectation and is so in unexpected and innovate ways.
Our personal expectations, especially when concerning an artist of whom we would consider ourselves diehard fans, go through a period of extensive and aggressive growth when inklings of a project come to light. But whether or not months, even years of building continue or simply dim into a quiet darkness without a proper materialization, we eventually lose hope for the project's date of release.
But that same sense of hopelessness doesn't tend to affect our expectation of the project's quality. In fact, the biggest problem with a drawn-out release is that with each passing moment, the weight of expectation only waxes.
Yet somehow, projects beyond a duality of unprecedented expectation occasionally come not only to be the trademark releases of an artist's canon but can even come to be defining moments in music history.
Recently, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, Frank Ocean's Blond, and now, A$AP Rocky's Testing.
It’s not an easy thing to do – making the outright creative decisions that stray from a sense of normalcy in what is expected. But then again, Rocky has never once pursued any of his creative passions with boundaries. A no-fucks-given-what-anybody-thinks kind of attitude is after all, what his true fans really love about him. But what he has done here with Testing is unprecedented in the ways that, as mentioned before, only the keystone projects from some of modernity’s most resonant creators have accomplished.
Testing is bold. It’s innovative. It displays an utmost sort of creative endowment that could only come from a genius mind. And yet, it is beyond genius. In its wisdom, in its weight, in its downright grit and distortionism, it lays the track for the future while simultaneously being the best that the present has to offer. It may come to be ultimately influential in ways even Rocky hasn’t yet achieved in his career.
Live.Love.A$AP once drew into the limelight a vibrant sort of psychedelia that hadn’t yet been so popularized in hip-hop. In the project’s wake, hip-hop came to resemble the funk-inspired, mellow-tone groove that drove it into the halls of stoner anthem infamy.
LONG.LIVE.A$AP brought with it a hard-hitting but relatable high-energy vibe without the cheesiness plaguing the then party anthem scene of overwhelming production and underwhelming everything else. Hip-hop took a turn towards a similar approach after its release and A$AP’s subsequent explosion that delivered him tableside at the dinner for the genre’s royalty.
At.Long.Last.A$AP is often underappreciated, as most follow-up projects to a breakout album are, because it wasn’t a mirror image of its predecessor. It was an honest, open, an emotionally-stirring project made in the memory of the late A$AP yams. It displayed a more thorough understanding of music, a wider set of skills required to reach his listeners on personal levels, and a continuation in his growth as both a lyricist, vocalist, and producer.
Testing takes all of Rocky’s career risks and strokes of creative innovation into account and drops on them a far more apparent and bold line of experimentation not only lyrically and vocally, but predominantly in its production.
Testing is here not only to change hip-hop’s course as each of Rocky’s previous projects has; it is here to change its entire sonic landscape. Fitting to its title, Testing puts into practice many controversial and experimental ideas that have not yet otherwise successfully worked their ways into mainstream hip-hop from the undergrounds of each of music’s stylistic expanses. Undertone, oftentimes muted vocals drive a dark sense of emotion and a feeling of unanswered question into the project’s lyricism. Much of the project thus feels impressionistic. A sense of auditory blank space highlights the complex minimalism behind Testing’s every track. A series of 80’s-inspired synthwave techniques from retro game influence to hyper-repetitive synth strokes lends it an air of electronic respectability.
These are only three examples. There are dozens.
At the end of the day, what may be most impressive is not necessarily that A$AP is so violently searching to unearth hip-hop’s future sounds, but that he is seemingly carrying with him the rest of the game on his shoulders. Testing is essentially a group project thanks to the vast variety of features that lend their unique style to Rocky’s thorough retro-futuristic vision. His influence therefore extends far beyond his already massive reach, and into the realms of all his friends and collaborators. And in that way – in the respect and influence that all of music finds in A$AP Rocky, Testing, aside from being simply a defining moment to Rocky personally in on hip-hop’s modern aesthetic, may just come to be a great project whose influence continues for generations.