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A$AP Rocky - Testing Music Album Reviews

A$AP Rocky - Testing Music Album Reviews

On his third studio album, Rocky is more experimental and personal but for music that relies on the New York rapper’s artful intuitions, it’s unfortunate his intuitions are often very basic.

In late May, A$AP Rocky confined himself to a glass cell fitted with cameras, microphones, and harsh industrial lights. He wandered through a swarm of balloons, nibbled on raw peppers, teased new music, and dunked his face in ice water—real art stuff. Hosted at the New York City headquarters of auction house Sotheby’s, this live multimedia installation, titled LAB RAT, functioned more as a signal than an experience: A$AP Rocky was no longer just a rapper; he was high art. His wardrobe change during the event, from a slick tux to a traffic-cone-orange jumpsuit, hinted at this new, vague direction. “I don’t completely know what I’m doing, I just know what I like and what I don’t like,” he told the New York Times earlier that day.

Testing, Rocky’s third studio album and first outing without the direct oversight of his late friend and counsel A$AP Yams, uses intuition as its guiding force, broadening Rocky’s palette by simply trusting what he likes and what he doesn’t. If curation is the union of taste and restraint, intuition is the union of taste and curiosity. Rocky’s intuitions are basic. Like the crash dummies from which Testing and LAB RAT crib their aesthetics, Rocky is enamored with collision. His approach to songcraft on Testing is to mash sounds together and capture the friction. The results are often dismal.

On “Gunz N Butter” Rocky’s distorted vocals are stacked atop a chunky, pitched-down sample of Project Pat’s “Still Ridin Clean” that’s accented by ad-libs from Juicy J (who is also a guest on the Project Pat song). Rocky’s flow slides in and out of sync with Pat’s signature staccato, generating a counter-rhythm that gets played up by choice record scratches. The sum of all this layering is a leaning Jenga tower of sounds that hisses and warbles like a shaky radio signal. “CALLDROPS” works similarly, heaping a blissful sample of Dave Bixby’s “Morning Sun” onto muted, nonsensical croons from Rocky and Dean Blunt, who then cede space to an incarcerated Kodak Black. Kodak’s bluesy vocals are garbled and gnashed, a sonic ugly cry. All this density makes these songs dynamic, but it doesn’t mask their aimlessness. Rocky’s Kodak support comes off as an empty flex; his long-running infatuation with Memphis rap feels like muscle memory. Rocky constantly conflates method with insight, process with vision.

And his vision is often literal. For the opener “Distorted Records” Rocky chants the song title over...distorted bass. “OG Beeper” tells the story of a young Rocky wishing to be a rapper by offering the beginning and the end. “My whole life I just wanted to be a rapper/Then I grew’d up and the boy became a rapper,” he summarizes as if nothing happened in between.

When Rocky’s intuitions aren’t painfully straightforward, they’re outsourced. Testing is in many ways Rocky’s attempt to remake Frank Ocean’s insular 2016 album Blonde. From the seagulls and surf-rock flourishes of “Kids Turned Out Fine,” to the verbatim citation of Blonde on “A$AP Forever,” to the constant pitch-shifts and nonlinear storytelling, Blonde serves as a direct and indirect template for Rocky’s sprawling interests. Ocean’s actual appearances on “Purity” and “Brotha Man” ground his muse by showing a genuine aesthetic overlap—Rocky and Ocean are fond of murky, immersive soundscapes and sharp pivots between longing and lucidity—but Rocky’s Blonde retreads are a lack of direction at best and yet more taste-signalling at worst. Both scenarios are damning; Blonde’s fluidity and depth are the product of a specific and pained artistic vision; its style and experimentation are means, not ends.

Rocky’s instincts aren’t always unreliable. On “Buck Shots,” alongside A$AP affiliates Playboi Carti and Smooky Margiela, Rocky moves nimbly, letting the beat breathe. It feels like a cypher hosted inside a lava lamp. Lead single “A$AP Forever” captures the charisma that often eludes Rocky’s music. “I put New York on the map,” he raps, a claim so preposterous it’s infectious. A gratuitous sample of Moby’s “Porcelain” lends the song a flickering warmth, but Rocky remains the centerpiece. When Kid Cudi and T.I. chime in to praise Rocky’s progress, their admiration feels neither staged nor bought.

Likewise, the sterling Frank Ocean cameo on closer “Purity” feels born of real collaboration. “Got they hands out like acknowledging the Führer,” Ocean raps, evoking the creepiness of being publicly adored. “Lose someone every release/It feels like the curse is in me,” Rocky sighs following a sample of Lauryn Hill’s “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind,” a cut from the reclusive artist’s final record after a brief but potent overexposure to fame. “Purity” deftly collapses and isolates their three voices, turning Hill’s anxiety, Ocean’s reservation, and Rocky’s grief into a triptych of black anguish. In moments like these, Rocky’s intuition feels rooted in practice and experience rather than mere curiosity.

The bright side to Rocky’s arthouse pretensions and free-wheeling songwriting is that he sounds free. The rap world’s infatuation with high art, from JAY-Z, to Kilo Kish, to Kanye, has largely been corny and naive. But tucked between the pomp and the self-importance is a real sense of conviction, that rap is a worthwhile investment of time and effort, for the culture, and for artists themselves. Rocky’s anything-goes tests come up short, but they feel like his alone.

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