A$AP Rocky does what he wants to do

For rapper A$AP Rocky, even social-media platforms like Instagram can be tools for artistic expression

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      A$AP Rocky is not an easy man to get on the phone, which is no great surprise. As befits someone on the verge of superstar status, the American rapper has serious demands on his time.

      Somehow, though, the Straight manages to get Rocky on the line twice. During the first interview, he’s in Berlin on a European festival tour. For the second—which takes place a full three hours after the scheduled time—he’s in New York City, his hometown, sounding exhausted after an Adidas photo shoot that went longer than expected.

      Each time, Rocky comes across as affable and unfailingly polite, but it’s clear he has no time for small talk, which makes establishing a genuine rapport difficult—and the strict time limits placed upon the interviewer don’t help matters. With a bit of prodding, though, the man sometimes known by the lofty title of Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye indulges the Straight by discussing what sort of music he enjoys during his almost nonexistent downtime.

      “I listen to classic music sometimes when I’m in the car,” he says. “I might listen to blues. It depends what mood I’m in. I’m open to listening to anything at certain times. I’ve been listening to psychedelic ’60s rock. That shit’s cool.”

      That last admission is hardly shocking after exposure to Rocky’s latest studio album, At.Long.Last.A$AP. While it’s not self-consciously retro in any way—Rod Stewart samples notwithstanding—many of the LP’s tracks are delivered in a narcotic haze.

      On the spare and screwed “Fine Whine”, for example, the MC’s voice is pitched down and slowed to a codeine-cough-syrup crawl. Consider also the Christmas-light twinkle of “Excuse Me”, with a tunefully reverb-blurred bridge sung by Flacko himself. And then there’s the Kanye West coproduction “Jukebox Joints”, which coasts along on a looped sample from obscure early-’70s Indonesian psych-prog act Rasela, until it switches gears and instead incorporates a Smokey Robinson beat as its backdrop.

      There’s a case to be made, in fact, that At.Long.Last.A$AP is itself a psychedelic record.

      “I think so, yeah,” Rocky says in reply to that suggestion. “I would agree. I would say it’s a form of psychedelic music, because it does add different dimensions that are definitely trippy. As far as the sequencing of the tracks, of each individual song, it’s like every track seems like it takes you on a maze of, like, three or four different songs in one, but they’re all cohesive.

      “It’s hard to describe, and that’s the really dope part about psychedelic music: it’s really something that you don’t describe, it’s more something that you feel and experience.”

      For the 26-year-old hip-hop star, who’s one of the major draws at the upcoming Squamish Valley Music Festival, the psychedelic experience goes beyond the sonic sphere. The title of the pupil-dilating rap ballad “L$D” nominally stands for “Love Sex Dreams”, but the lyrics to “Pharsyde” are less ambiguously about acid: “It’s the irony how LSD inspired me to reach the higher me/Used to never give a damn, now I don’t give a fuck entirely.”

      On the surface, that seems like nihilism, but the kind of not-giving-a-fuck Rocky refers to is less about apathy than it is about shrugging off self-doubt—and the naysaying of haters—and tuning in to one’s innate talents.

      “With most of these psychedelic drugs,” he reflects, “it’s about awareness, right? Enlightenment, to an extent, to some degree. Most people who take it, after they’ve done it, when they try to reiterate everything that happened, they just tell you, basically, ‘It was amazing. I get it now. I get life, I get this, I get that,’ you know? For me, LSD just kind of complemented my initial attitude toward life. It was just like, ‘Fuck it. It doesn’t matter. Do the best you could do, be the best you could be. Fuck everything. Do some dope shit. Just do what you want to do.’ ”

      Doing what he wants to do is working out pretty well for A$AP Rocky these days. At.Long.Last.A$AP debuted in Billboard’s No. 1 spot—not just in the rap and R&B categories, but on the overall album chart. (It reached No. 1 in Canada a few weeks later.) His debut studio record, Long.Live.A$AP, achieved the same hat trick.

      That 2013 release, however, was a more direct assault on the mainstream, containing the double-platinum single “Fuckin’ Problems”. Built on a dead-simple slamming beat (courtesy of Canadian producer Noah Shebib) and featuring single-entendre me-so-horny verses from Drake and Kendrick Lamar with a hook delivered by 2 Chainz, “Fuckin’ Problems” is an unapologetically populist club banger. There really isn’t anything like it on At.Long.Last.A$AP; although the ScHoolboy Q–featuring “Electric Body” is just as sexually charged, it isn’t aimed at the cheap seats in quite the same way.

      “If you really listen to this album and my first mix tape, I think those two are more compatible than the first commercial release, Long.Live.A$AP,” he says. “This album kind of complements the first mix tape, if you ask me. It’s like a final chapter to it, or something like that. I wanted it to grow on people, because it takes some getting used to if you’re not an open-minded person. This is definitely for people with a higher taste level for art, culture, and music just in general.”

      In Rocky’s view, there is a clear line between those with “higher” and “lower” tastes, and he knows which ones he’s trying to cultivate as a fan base. Not content with being considered a mere entertainer, he considers himself an artist.

      That attitude carries over from his in-studio and on-stage work to his social-media presence, particularly on Instagram. Although some of the images he uploads are confounding when looked at individually—and some just seem to be blank—when you view his entire feed, they invariably combine to create complex collages, some of them quite beautiful. It’s an innovative use of a platform that is too often simply a tool for promoting products. In fact, Rocky sees his activities on Instagram as a push back against online commercialism.

      “What, am I gonna sit here and promote brands all day and shit?” he asks rhetorically. “Nah, fuck that. I got tired of the whole cliché thing of people posting shit just to be like, ‘Na-na-na boo-boo, look what I got; look what you don’t have. Look how much cooler my life is than yours,’ you know?”

      In May, the rapper partnered with artist Robert Gallardo to turn his Instagram feed into a “digital installation”. Over the course of 10 hours, it all added up to something, even if it at first appeared to be nothing more than a series of grey squares. This project reportedly cost Rocky more than 100,000 followers, but that apparently didn’t faze him: “If you have a low taste level, you might find it annoying that I post so many posts, you get what I’m saying? But if you have patience, you’ll grow to like my feed and appreciate art, and actually do something artistic with your Instagram. That’s just how I look at it. It’s not like I’m doing something that no one else can do. Anyone can do it. I just want people to do it. And people started doing it, and I like it, man. It’s cool.

      “I’m just trying to spread some positivity, because life is real fucked-up,” Rocky says of his online endeavours. “You’ve just got to make the best of this shit, you know what I’m saying?”

      If anyone knows just how fucked-up life can be, it’s A$AP Rocky. The man born Rakim Mayers in Harlem in 1988 had what could best be described as a hardscrabble urban upbringing. When he was 12, his father (who died in 2012) was jailed for selling drugs, a path that the younger Mayers seemed destined to follow. When he was 13, his older brother, who had taught him to rap, was shot and killed about a block from where Rocky was born. Moving from one homeless shelter to the next with his mother and kid sister, young Rakim started selling marijuana, graduating to crack by the time he was 15.

      Things began to change for the better when he met Steven Rodriguez in 2007 and later joined him in the already extant A$AP Mob collective. Tragically, Rodriguez, better known as A$AP Yams, died of an accidental drug overdose in January. He was 26. Although the topic is now implicitly off-limits, Rocky has said recently that his psychedelic experiences—of both the musical and chemical variety—have helped him process that loss. Yams, aka Cozy Boy, was Rocky’s friend and his partner in the A$AP Worldwide label, but he was also much more than that. In many ways he was instrumental in the MC’s rise, working behind the scenes to promote his career and helping him shape the sound of his music, including his first mix tape, 2011’s Live.Love.A$AP. Yams had been working on At.Long.Last.A$AP at the time of his death, and he received a posthumous executive-producer credit for the album.

      Rocky is planning to honour his late collaborator’s memory by getting some of his own tracks out into the world. “I’m working on the Cozy Boy album right now, The Cozy Tapes,” he reveals. “It’s A$AP Yams’ album. I’m starting with that, trying to figure out what to do with it. It’s at the beginning stages, so we’ll see.”

      As for his own art and what shape it might take next—will it bring him back to the club, or even further down the lysergic rabbit hole?—he refuses to speculate, insisting that it’s too soon to tell. One thing is almost certain, however: by this time next year, it’ll be even harder to get A$AP Rocky on the phone.

      A$AP Rocky plays the Tantalus Stage at the Squamish Valley Music Festival next Saturday (August 8).