Wednesday, 20 November 2013
This is music with a pose aware of its own status as pose, but one posed for an audience different to that working-class or lumpen-proletarian audience one which hip-hop might, in the past and even in some cases in the present, at least pretend to speak for and to. This is music for hipsters, the Pitchfork crowd, posing as music for the people, but which everyone knows is music for hipsters; to be listened to by trendy white kids ‘slumming’ it through their headphones, but with the requisite amount of ‘artiness’ to prevent them from feeling that they’re actually accessing a true lumpen-proletarian vision. Thus, the mix of lyrics with pretensions to the hard-edge macho-misogynistic boasting of a gangsta lienage with ‘cloud rap’ quasi-melancholy, the woozily doomy ambience of post DJ-Screw aesthetics. A$AP Rocky doesn’t rap much, compared to, say, MF Doom’s hyper-virtuosity: the words merge into the background, the track standing on its production rather than by its words (a trend perhaps initiated by the Lil B/ Clams Casino collaborations). Indeed, this is what characterizes the increasing blurring of the lines between style and content, where the emptiness of the gangsta boasts is indeed treated as empty, as almost a secondary texture to the production, dextrousness of flow more than content. Lil B is the extreme example of this, perhaps, veering wildly between the most banal of self-help positivity mantras and aggressive rape-threats to the more interesting parodies of the ideas of persona whereby Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” becomes ‘I’m Bill Clinton’, ‘I’m God’, ‘I’m Gay’, etc, all reduced to the same incompetently slurred and slow, seemingly semi-improvised quasi-rapping.
Still, I think the first song ‘Long.Live.A$AP’, which shares the name of the album, is doing something more interesting, structurally, something which both underlines and goes against the suggestions of its title, with its suggestions of royalty, the urgent non-spaced full-stop between the words breaking up the length or eternity it claims to claim, the urgency of the ASAP acronym turned into ‘get money’, as if that eternity could be accomplished by the money that accumulates the exploitations of an obscured history as its never-ending transcendental legacy for getting everything you want right now, forever. What, for example, to make of the poignancy of its high-pitched sung chorus, asserting that, “Of course, I’m living forever I’ll / Forever, I’ll live long”, with its odd rhythmic landing on the first word (‘I’ll’) of the next sentence, here included as the concluding cadence of the previous line; the grammatical weirdness whereby a verb is elided in order to allow that rhythmic extension of the “I’ll”, so that Rocky claims he’ll “forever”, in which ‘forever’ becomes a verb one could perform, even as the future-projection in the claim to be able to live forever is insistently reduced to a present tense “I’m living forever,” ending with an insistent “I’ll LIVE” that nonetheless never connects up with the “I’ll / forever” which precedes it and which it should complete, so that the futurity of living forever can never be said directly. Not only because of this grammatical weirdness, but because of the odd ethereality of the voice itself – which one might even depict as having the vague associations a kind of soul-ascended-from-the-body spectrality, particularly after Rocky, his “soul […] feel[ing] empty” challenges “the reaper [to] come get me” at the end of the first verse – or the fact that Rocky, despite his claims to invincibility and immortality, to being “on the road to riches” and “tot[ing] that 9,” equally depicts himself as running scared, somewhere between Malcolm X (perhaps via Krs-One), holding his gun in readiness at the window, and a middle-class weakling (“Strangers make me nervous, who’s that peekin’ in my window with a pistol to the curtains?”).
This is all, it seems to me, a making-fragile of the usual gangsta boasting (a boast, to live forever through one’s music or one’s poetry, that of course has existed well before hip-hop) as it appears in the verses, whose juxtaposition with this dreamy chorus is highlighted with almost clunky transitional tenacity in the production, highlighting the status of that chorus as both dream interlude before the reality of life sets back in and as that aspired to by the rest of the song, but only ever briefly reached. The notion of eternal life is here abstracted from the very material subject matter of the rapping – money, women and drugs – so that the material ‘keeping it real’ boasts of hip-hop (which have been, to varying degrees, of course a dramatic facade, a wish fulfilment fantasy, in large or in part) are given a kind of metaphysical tinge (which is, one might argue, entirely apposite given the sacralization of money and/or its gains that hip-hop capitalism has fully, though perhaps parodically and from a complex class position, embraced). As such, this is perhaps the opposite of that process Theodor Adorno believed to be traced in the music of Gustav Mahler, in which “the underworld of music is mobilized against the disappearing world of the starry heavens in order for the latter to be moved and to be a corporeal presence among humankind”; here, corporeal presences and ambitions (which might lead, indeed, to becoming a corpse, through drug addiction, gun crime, and the like, as the lyrics acknowledge) re-ascend into a set of starry heavens which are no longer believed, mystified in the here and now. The stars have already been moved down to earth, and have taken up residence, as hip-hop celebrity replacing the class solidarity that the genre had, and still does, at least in part promise, as the vague intimations of metaphysical belief that circle around Christianity and Islam in hip-hop’s mythic universe.
We might compare here Kanye West’s figure of Yeezus; West still with enough belief invested in some vaguely-theorized ‘Most High’ to take precautionary measures to defend himself against accusations of blasphemy, yet elevating material ambitions, getting, enjoying and maintaining the trappings of wealth as an almost divine goal in itself. But whereas Kanye’s Yeezus is relentlessly harsh, even in its self-pity, the ugliness of the Nina Simone sampling on ‘Blood on the Leaves’ only the most egregious example of this, A$AP’s far less skilful and interesting play with persona – as much a factor of the (multi-personed) production as of the actual rap – nonetheless haunts in its manipulative poignancy in a manner that might also indicate where hip-hop might think it’s come in 2013; or where the afore-mentioned Pitchfork-esque white hipster audience that seems to me to increasingly be shaping this kind of work, thinks it’s come. The wistful whimsicality of the ‘live forever’ chorus is not equivalent to that gesture by which, for Adorno, Mahler’s ironic undercutting of the utopian urge is precisely where he is at his most utopian; instead, it denies that very possibility, and would even seem happy with that state of denial, fetishizing that sense of melancholia and loss in order to amp up its boasts, while dressing them all up in a gauze of a simply aestheticized beauty.
Of course, that sentimentality – think UGK’s “One day you’re here, baby, the next day you’re gone,” as turned into epic vocalized sorrow on the elongated, stretched-out DJ Screw remix – is a hip-hop staple that allows the tough-guy to think himself a feeling man at heart (or, at the least, the production, the use of a jazz or a soul sample, might allow that). A$AP’s female / child-like alter-ego (note the child’s voice that comes in in the final reprise of that chorus), his dreaming high voice – whether or not it is his, treated, or a guest appearance – is thus both separated from and fused with his more ‘gangsta’ image, having it both ways, removing the dreams of ‘living forever’ which might be a call for a collective justice and redemption rather than merely the individual desire for invincibility they would more easily, obviously or even accurately seem to be, while also suggesting that they are central to the verses they surround or interrupt.
Or again, the trope of a boast which undermines itself is hardly a new one – and it’s also present on Kanye’s ‘I am a God’, however much this kind of 1950’s movie-psychologising response is anticipated and satirized within the form of the song itself, a relentless refusal of a particular kind of confessionalism, even as much of the album also falls into an ugly and self-regarding self-pity. On ‘God’, the production, rather than suggesting an ethereal other register as it does in ‘Long.Live.A$AP’, only serves to heighten the relentless crudity of the lyrics, the way they constantly put their foot in their mouth and celebrate the fact of doing just that. So that (to repeat myself), the melodrama Kanye makes of the song’s relentless self-inflation (the repeated sampled screams and the stutters in the music, placed just so as to unsettle the flow at the ‘wrong’ moment) is not so much a cutting-down, a staged vulnerability, but part of the whole performative mask which anticipates an imagined defeat or fear or hubris as, maybe, just another boast. (As well as being part of the whole persecution complex that goes with that exaggerated vanity). But to say that there’s, oh, I don’t know, some ‘real despair’ behind it all is exactly the move that the music anticipates and disallows by occasionally staging moments of apparent self-doubt (which are anyway often ‘resolved’: the singing of “ain’t no way I’m giving up. I am a God” after the final four screams).
Yet, by contrast, I can’t help feeling that there is something more to Rocky’s eeriness than either this anticipatory denial of a separate ‘true inner core’ – jarringly enacted by the high-pitched male screams which ‘punctuate’, or, more accurately, interrupt the lyrics – or a kind of evasively sentimental quasi-metaphysical gesture, hinting at the true material core, the potential collective demand behind the relentless individualized drive of its gangsta-materialisation of the spiritual and spiritualisation of the gangsta-material. This, if only for the way it’s insistently been embedded in my head now all day and all night, despite itself, despite its own anticipations or manipulations of this for indie-cred.
But perhaps I am simply wrong.