A$AP Rocky burst onto the scene in the early part of this decade with a few very impressive mixtapes. From his earliest releases, Rocky carried with him a very distinct aesthetic which was impressively well developed for such an early point in his career. At the time of his 2013 major label debut, LONG.LIVE.A$AP, his rhythmic flow, cocky lyricism, and penchant for selecting spacey, progressive beats had put him and his A$AP mob at the very cutting edge of the rap game.
His 2015 follow up, AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, divided his fanbase, with some feeling that Rocky had sacrificed content for aesthetic, while others, myself included, felt that his sophomore project had served to further establish his the A$AP Rocky aesthetic. Dreamy instrumentals and heavy hitting flow combined on this project to build one of my favorite rap projects of all time. Thus, I was very excited for A$AP’s return, here in 2018.
From the opening beat on “Distorted Records,” there is a clear shift. The sugary instrumentation is nowhere to be found, leaving listeners, instead, to a more Yeezus-esque experimentation that creates a much heavier sound when mixed with Rocky’s still hard and confident delivery.
While this sound is quite jarring and interesting on early tracks like “Fukk Sleep” and “Buck Shots,” it begins to get old as the record drags on. Rocky could’ve avoided this had he done more with this experimentation, but instead, he provides little more than trap drums with heavy bass.
The real highlights of this album come on tracks like my personal favorite, “CALLDROPS” and “Changes.” Here, Rocky croons a sort of stream of consciousness over long, dreamy instrumentals which, while being reminiscent of his earlier tracks, work in the albums overarching sound well. These tracks serve as an example of just how well this record could’ve worked.
A$AP’s lyricism leaves something to be desired here. There may not be any lines that stick as poor, but nothing at all shines as being well written. He often contradicts himself, saying that he doesn’t care about lists, just after having said that if there is a list, he should be number one. The main themes of his writing center on his own vanity with a few comments on race and the A$AP mob as a whole sprinkled in. This is, of course, no different than past work, but there is such a lack of creativity here, that the vanity often comes across as totally unwarranted and even annoying.
Feature wise, the record does well. The Kodak feature on “CALLDROPS” is somehow one of the best on the project, maybe only second Frank Ocean’s work on “Purity,” closes the track list on a high note. Even the more forgettable guests, Juicy J on “Gunz N Butter,” for example, do add something important and notable to the tracks while still finding their niche in the very new sound of this record.
Ultimately, TESTING often falls short of the expectations set for it by Rocky’s past work, but it does succeed in forging a brand new path of its own. This path is wonderfully complex and inventive on some tracks, and yet barren and repetitive on others. While I find myself somewhat disappointed, I can’t say that I was unchallenged by this project, and that is quite a redeeming quality.