“We catchin’ spirits. We ain’t even really rappin’, we just lettin’ our dead homies tell stories for us.”
AT. LONG. LAST. A$AP
Those words are the last spoken by the ghost of Tupac Shakur on “Mortal Man” — the closing track on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly — and they offer what is perhaps the best characterization thus far of the otherworldly aura surrounding 2015’s most ambitious projects in hip hop and R&B. Starting with Flying Lotus’s October release You’re Dead!, continuing through D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and finally to Kendrick’s masterpiece, a new canon of technically and lyrically stunning work is rapidly being assembled as America’s most critically acclaimed Black artists open themselves up to conversations with an ever-expanding host of spirits.
I bring up the race of these musicians in part because their music expresses a hyper-awareness of their own identity as Black men, but mostly because the spirit realm their songs belong to hangs over a physical world increasingly covered with Black bodies. The shooting and death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 served as an introduction to what now seems like an unending litany of Black victims gunned down by white authority figures. The sheer weight of this reality should be inescapable for any American, but it is particularly so for African-Americans, who make up a disproportionate percentage of the casualties of police violence in this country. “Trayvon Martin could have been me,” President Obama famously said.
These artists find themselves in a landscape covered in bodies, but it’s unclear whether they’re standing in a cemetery or in front of a mass grave. The difference between the two scenes hinges largely on the cyclical debate over whether people like Mike Brown, for example, were criminals who received their just desserts or innocent victims of a society that unjustly singles them out for destruction. While the official report invariably describes the former scenario, often the only witness who might contradict the powers that be is the dead man with a policeman’s bullet in his chest — and, as the old adage goes, dead men tell no tales.
But it would seem that dead men can in fact rap, and nowhere is that fact more apparent than on the latest release from Harlem-bred MC A$AP Rocky, At.Long.Last.A$AP, which features posthumous vocals from Texas rapper Pimp C and A$AP Mob founder A$AP Yams, both of whom died young of a promethazine overdose complicated by sleep apnea. While Tupac’s benevolent ghost offers guidance to a troubled young rapper on To Pimp a Butterfly, A.L.L.A.’s cover artwork, which features the upper half of Yams’s face eerily superimposed onto Rocky’s forehead, suggests a much more ambiguous relationship between the artist and the ghosts trying to speak through him.
The source of that ambiguity is left somewhat unclear by the end of the album, but the emotional and philosophical fluctuation between A.L.L.A.’s first nine pot- and LSD-laden tracks, to the homage-heavy quartet running from “Jukebox Joints” to “Wavybone” and finally to the frenetic rumination on the overlaps between love, drugs and money on the LP’s final six tracks makes it clear that this album is something of a musical disembowelment for A$AP Rocky. He’s putting himself out there with a type of frankness and self-confidence that simply wasn’t present in his meticulously crafted Long.Live.A$AP and Live.Love.A$AP personae, and this frankness occasionally leads him to blurt out things that really should have stayed inside his head, like the “Type of hate that make you feel worse than a rape victim” line off of “Back Home.” Yet other quotable lines — like “Left ’em Harlem shaking on the pavement” from “Pharsyde” or “This year I turned racist, all I wanna see is green faces” from “Electric Body” — reveal a beautifully macabre sense of humor that lends Rocky’s crudity and goofiness a significant political and philosophical weight. The guts he leaves on the table are perhaps hard to look at, but they’re there in all their gory detail. While meaning is there to be found, grabbing onto it means getting your hands dirty.
And I think the best way to think of A.L.L.A. is as A$AP Rocky running his hands through his own entrails, painfully searching for a way to define himself among that pile of skin, blood and intestines. Part of that process involves exorcising the ghosts he finds inside himself, which leads, of course, to the voice of A$AP Yams filling the same role on “Back Home” that Tupac played for Kendrick on “Mortal Man.” He closes out the album with a Dame Dash-esque invocation accompanied by haunting, reverb-heavy piano melodies, concluding Rocky’s self-vivisection on a definitely unsettling note. His speech evokes Harlem, fashion, cultural influence and the A$AP Mob, and it might have been a spot-on description of Rocky’s pre-A.L.L.A. ethos. But Yams is dead, and while talking to his ghost might explain everything leading up to his death, it doesn’t explain what comes after.
And what does come after? For now, Rocky’s answer is an image he provides at the end of “Dreams”: “Police brutality was on my TV screen / Harmony, love, drugs and peace is all we need.” But somehow that doesn’t satisfy either, in part because it doesn’t do enough to bridge the gap between the two lines. What it has done, however, is demonstrate that Rocky is tapping into the same issues facing the best artists in hip hop right now, issues that have already produced some of the best and most socially engaged albums of the last 20 years. This album is not one of those masterpieces — though if it came out in any year other than 2015, I would be writing a much different conclusion to this piece — but it suggests to me that we’re looking at the prelude to an explosion of depth and maturity in Rocky’s sound, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll be looking at A.L.L.A. in the afterglow of Rocky’s next album in much the same way that we’re looking at good kid, m.A.A.d. city now.
In the meantime, the dead don’t rest easy — but they just found another rapper who can make them speak.