a guest Feb 28th, 2020 421 Never
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- A$AP Rocky grabs at his left leg and gasps with pain. “I did a front flip into the crowd last night—and landed on this kid’s head,” he explains, wincing as he limps across the floorboards of Jimi Hendrix’s old studio.
- It’s 6:30 p.m. on a January Saturday, and Rocky’s on the top floor of Electric Lady Studios, the Greenwich Village recording complex Hendrix built just before his death in 1970. The front flip in question happened at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, during a mammoth concert-qua-party, known as Yams Day, which Rocky throws annually in honor of his late friend A$AP Yams. Yams died of an accidental drug overdose in 2015 at age 26, nine years after founding Harlem’s art, fashion and music collective known as the A$AP Mob, of which Rocky is the best-known member. Rather than a somber memorial, though, the event was raucously upbeat, featuring a full-floor mosh pit, a parade of guest rappers and a wrestling ring in which fighters faux-pummeled each other. “Focused chaos,” Rocky calls it, his voice a destroyed rasp—another injury, from all the screaming he did.
- Like Rocky’s music itself, the evening blurred the line between hedonism and melancholy. There were serious tributes to Yams and other dead hip-hop luminaries one moment, a flurry of headlocks and pile-drivers the next. “Y’all tired?” Rocky goaded the crowd at one point. “Last year, n—s was crowd-surfing in the stands. I’m trying to top last year!” He bawdily encouraged women in attendance to toss him their bras. (Several complied.) He hurled a 13-year-old up-and-coming rapper named Bouba Savage off the stage into the mosh pit. And, over and over again, he hurled himself in, too—even after that telltale jolt shot up his leg. “It’s therapeutic,” he says of his love for moshing. “I guess I have somewhat of a semi-violent past, and as you get older and you’re upset about things, either you catch an assault charge or you go hit a punching bag. For me, I go in the mosh pit.”
- Rocky’s 31 now, and his body’s starting to complain more than it once did, but he has little intention of slowing down: After leaving Barclays at around 1 a.m., he came straight here to work on his fourth studio album, due out later this year, recording till well after dawn. He grimaces as he lowers himself gently onto a couch.
- “Hendrix inspires me,” he says in a croak-whisper, regarding the room. “The energy here is very warm—not just acoustic warmth but an energy of almost, like, Zen. I’m fascinated by Jimi’s story. Left-handed guitarist, playing his guitar upside down.” Hendrix’s example encourages an improvisatory, experimental approach in Rocky, he says, pointing at an upright piano nestled against a nearby wall: “Bro, I start f—ing around with these instruments I don’t even know how to play and I make cool-sounding shit.”
- If there’s a thematic through-line to Rocky’s career, it’s one of restless exploration. As a teenager, born and mostly bred in Harlem, he’d take the subway downtown daily—at first because that’s where his mom enrolled him in high school, but also because it was an enticingly different world from the one he knew uptown. Downtown was filled with weirdo art-kids, ambitious scenesters and transcendent evenings at dance clubs. He grew enamored of high fashion, coveting outré creations by designers like Rick Owens and Raf Simons. Some Harlem toughs gave him funny looks for his outfits, but today Rocky’s credited with interweaving hip-hop and the European runway more than anyone except Kanye West.
- When Rocky started putting out music in earnest, in 2011, he strayed far from home sonically, too, incorporating textures and flourishes plucked from the Houston and Memphis rap scenes. His friend and collaborator Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, who’s worked with artists as varied as Solange Knowles, Florence and the Machine and Philip Glass, says that the first of two songs he put out with Rocky, called “Hun43rd,” was equally inspired by grimy Memphis rap legends Three 6 Mafia and Scottish ’80s synth-rockers Cocteau Twins.
- “If I try to think of an artist who can understand both those sensibilities, Rocky’s the first person that comes to mind,” Hynes says. “He’s always stood out to me. There’s an inventiveness and exploration in what he does, but it’s always rooted in rap, and it always feels genuine.” Rocky’s early singles, notable for their aura of placeless cool, won him online buzz quickly followed by a $3 million major-label contract, at which point his wanderlust only intensified. Rocky has spent time living and recording in London and Berlin, moshing at dancehall clubs in the former and tripping on hallucinogens at techno clubs in the latter, seeking inspiration anywhere he can find it.
- Right now he’s feeling particularly inspired, meaning it’s going to take more than a busted leg and sore throat to keep him from the studio. In recent years Rocky has acted in videos, done brand-consulting and helped design apparel, but at the moment he’s focused on this new album and nothing else. The stakes feel especially high: More attention is on Rocky now than ever before, thanks to an improbable chain of events that thrust him onto the world-political stage last July.
- On tour in Stockholm, Rocky was walking around, looking at the Swedish architecture, he says, when he became involved in a street brawl. Ultimately charged with assault, he claimed self-defense; deemed a flight risk in a country with no bail system, he awaited trial behind bars. Fans clamored for his release, among them Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, who brought Rocky’s case to the attention of none other than President Donald Trump. He in turn tried to flex some ambassadorial muscle, dispatching a veteran hostage negotiator to broker Rocky’s freedom, which finally came in early August, by which point he’d spent more than a month in detention. A panel of judges found him guilty but decided the assault wasn’t serious enough to merit a prison sentence.
- Despite past lyrics from Rocky that have been harshly critical of Trump—he’s called the president an “a—hole” and linked him to the Ku Klux Klan—today he speaks carefully: “He called me shortly after I came out. He was just like, ‘How you doing?’ I was like, ‘I’m good.’ I thanked him, and that was really it. Cordial.” In public statements during Rocky’s detention, Trump cast himself in part as acting on behalf of “the African-American community,” leading some observers to speculate that the president saw an opportunity for a public-relations boost with that demographic. I ask Rocky if he got the sense that Trump wanted something in exchange for helping him. “Man, I wouldn’t know,” he replies. “That’s a very big possibility. I was just thanking whoever helped me when I was in that shit. I wasn’t concerned with anyone’s motivations.” (Trump’s intervention did not seem to play a role in Rocky’s release; Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told Trump during Rocky’s detainment that the Swedish government would “not attempt to influence legal proceedings.” A White House representative did not comment.)
- The strangeness of the whole affair only intensified when Rocky’s name came up during congressional impeachment hearings, in testimony from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and State Department official David Holmes, who recalled Sondland advising Trump, of Rocky, “Let him get sentenced, play the racism card, give him a ticker tape when he comes home.”
- Recounting this saga today, Rocky frames it as a deeply surreal experience whose most lasting upshot might be the unlikely exposure he has enjoyed among a whole new demographic: “All these old folks know who A$AP Rocky is now,” he says, cracking up. “It’s hilarious. Old folks be like, ‘That A$AP Rocky kid ain’t too bad, huh?’
- An assistant brings Rocky some tea and honey, which he pairs with a blunt, exhaling plumes of marijuana smoke between sips. “You know, these make my voice better,” he says with a grin. His outfit tonight is understated by his standards—a fitted black cardigan, simple Gucci loafers and sweatpants he laser-printed with dozens of images of himself. His fingernails are painted black, and he’s got on three enormous pearl rings. I say they make him look like a fortuneteller, and he shakes his head. “It’s like I’m the queen of some shit!”
- While crafting the new album, Rocky explains, he’s been working obsessively, to the extent that he’s covered his New York apartment with a sprawling blueprint made up of inspirational images: “It’s kind of like a vision board. I compile different points of reference and print ’em out and put them on the walls, so I live in it. It’s like when you go to a police precinct and the detectives have the investigation laid out.” What kinds of images has he got up? “Mostly pictures of myself,” he says matter-of-factly. When I laugh at this, he elaborates: “You gotta analyze who you are as an artist and know yourself better than anybody. Then people can never dictate shit to you.” His eyes widen. “I’m in it, man. I’m chasing the dragon. I’m so fascinated with everything I do, and so passionate, that it comes across a little comical if you’re the type of person who isn’t passionate about anything.”
- Trying to explain this for me, he likens himself to an eccentric pianist who insists on wearing gloves before a big performance: “Some people would be, like, ‘Why are you wearing gloves today? Why aren’t you shaking anyone’s hands?’ ‘Because at the moment my hands are unavailable.’ That might come across crazy or scary.” I ask Rocky what his version of those gloves are, and he’s quick to reply: “Drugs!”
- Drugs come up early and often in conversation with Rocky—particularly psychedelics, which have grown increasingly important in recent years not only to his creative process but to his sense of deeper well-being. “It’s all about mushrooms and LSD,” he says. “When you have a good trip, you feel more enlightened and have an understanding for self and other people. It’s less about tripping balls and more about some spiritual third-eye shit.” For example: “I was here in this room one time, doing LSD, and as I was coming down the sun was coming up, and the birds started singing and we recorded the f—ing birds. They weren’t tweeting, they were harmonizing and holding notes! And I was, like, communicating with them, because music is universal.”
- Hearing Rocky talk about hallucinogens, you sense that, as with moshing, they serve a therapeutic function for him. Born Rakim Mayers, he’s never seen fit to visit an actual therapist, he says, despite a cascade of hardships and traumas beginning in childhood. His father was “a big-time drug dealer” who uprooted the family from New York to Pennsylvania, chasing drug money, when Rocky was 8 years old. “My dad was a hustler, and the hustle brought him to Pennsylvania. He used to hustle in Harrisburg; he moved the whole family to Rutherford and Hershey,” Rocky recalls. One effect of this move was to make him adaptable: “I went to an all-white school there—there were probably like six or eight black people out of hundreds. By the time we moved back to New York, my friends were everybody. My world wasn’t just in one radius.”
- There were darker repercussions, too. When Rocky was 12, his father was incarcerated; the next year, Rocky’s older brother, Ricky, also a dealer, was shot and killed. Looked after by his mother, Rocky lived off and on in homeless shelters. When he was 16 he spent two weeks locked up at Rikers Island for dealing. In 2012 his father died from pneumonia. Then Yams died in 2015.
- Music offered Rocky solace. His breakthrough mixtape, Live.Love.A$AP, came out in 2011. Three studio albums followed—respectively debuting at No. 1, No. 1 and No. 4 on the Billboard album charts—in which Rocky melded different genres, from dubstep to psych-rock, and swung between his default mode of over-the-top, preening bravado (“Your favorite rappers’ corpses couldn’t measure my importance”) and occasional flashes of hardscrabble autobiography (“Three to a bed, sheets, no covers / Dirty kitchen, no supper in the cupboards”).
- Rocky’s artistic persona is that of a faintly haunted bon vivant—a persona, he explains, that extends beyond the recording booth, whether he’s ingesting LSD or amassing reams of luxury apparel. Dev Hynes says that when they spend time together, “it’s really just hanging: getting our nails done, talking about other shit, music and movies, but it always fuels back into the work. It’s why he connects with all these people like me or Tyler, the Creator or Frank Ocean—we’re recording in bedrooms and hotel rooms and kitchens and it all stems from hanging out.” Rocky has also discussed his adventurous love life and says that a few years back he had a special, oversize bed custom-built to accommodate multiple partners (“the more the merrier,” he tells me).
- But all this leaves you wondering whether the many tragedies in his life left scars on him, too. (Soon after we met, news broke that another A$AP-affiliated musician, deejay J. Scott, had died of unspecified causes.) I raise this question with him, but it’s clearly not a subject he much wants to discuss, answering with ambivalence—“probably”—before falling quiet until I change the subject.
- Rocky’s past emotional stresses prepared him, at least, for his monthlong detainment in Sweden. “When I first got there, the guards treated me like shit. You had crazy people yelling, echoing, screaming in the middle of the night.” He eventually moved to relatively nicer quarters, with friendlier guards, where the biggest problem was boredom. “They want to bore you to death. There’d be one chance to talk to the other inmates, for like 30 minutes, up on the roof in the morning. They’d tell me what was going on with my case, because I could see my face on TV in my cell but I don’t understand Swedish. It was f—ed, man. I had worldwide coverage, and it still took me a month! People in there were telling me, ‘I haven’t spoken to my mother in a year. I haven’t seen a judge.’ And it was only black and brown people.” (Sweden doesn’t keep statistics on ethnicity and crime, but according to the country’s Prison and Probation Service, in 2018 foreign citizens made up 30 percent of the prison population, an incarceration rate 3.5 times higher than that of people with Swedish citizenship.)
- Rocky came out of the experience interested in the plight of Sweden’s immigrant poor, he says, offering to design new uniforms for inmates, pro bono; returning to Stockholm in December for another concert, Rocky visited a youth center in the immigrant-heavy enclave of Husby on the day of the show and, from the passenger window of a Mercedes van, passed out free tickets, later announcing that other fans from the city’s “slums” could attend at a discounted rate of 1 Swedish krona, roughly 10 cents.
- It’s time to get to work. Rocky dislodges himself from the couch and ambles through a doorway toward another couch in the studio proper. Hector Delgado, a producer and engineer Rocky’s been working with for years, cycles through a series of in-progress songs for Rocky to review. “We gotta start narrowing some of these down,” Rocky says. “Some of these are not going to make the project.” Several of the best-sounding songs combine soft, ethereal textures with hammering percussion; dreamy singing with intricate rapping; hypnotic grooves with startlingly sudden rhythmic shifts. At this point in his career, another artist—maybe one who doesn’t spend hours physically immersed in pictures of himself—might have been tempted to make something more broadly palatable. But this music balances moments of catchiness with a defiant idiosyncrasy. At one point Rocky actually dismisses a song, named after Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark, as too catchy for its own good: “That sounds like a hit,” he tells Delgado, shaking his head. “I’m scared of hits.”
- Before long, Delgado cues up a rough track that Rocky, working with the multiplatinum Atlanta producer Metro Boomin, began last night, raspy voice be damned. For a full minute or two, it consists exclusively of a looped soul vocal and Rocky’s off-kilter rhymes—no bass, no drums. As the song proceeds, his vocals almost seem to fall out of phase with the sample, and the whole track threatens to fall apart, at which point the drums rush in to right the ship. Rocky loves it. “My flow is hard to understand, then that bitch hits!” he cries out in delight.
- Delgado nods, encouraging him: “The average person won’t get it till the drums come in,” he says. Rocky smiles. “This shit is hard. But I was so sleepy. I need to fix the beginning.” Delgado cautions him: “You’ve got to rest your voice, Rock.”
- Rocky asks him to play the track again. Something about the start isn’t sitting right with him, but he’s not quite sure why. He tells Delgado to rearrange the sample at the outset slightly, then play it again. He listens, squinting. “Ugh! I wanna get in the booth and fix it!” he repeats.
- When I finally leave him to work in peace, it’s after 10 p.m. Any birds in the neighborhood won’t be singing for another eight hours or so—plenty of time to figure it out.
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