A$AP Rocky – Testing
Truth be told, there was a lot riding on A$AP Rocky’s third studio album. Despite releasing two A$AP Mob tapes in 2016 and 2017 that were more or less Rocky featuring the Mob, the three years in between his previous outing, AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP felt quite long. Several delays and changes to the album plagued its development, and when pitted against his last album’s dragging length and bloat, there was a lot of expectation to return to the impact made on his excellent 2011 breakout mixtape and 2012 debut album. Setting himself as a trendsetter of the highest kind, Rocky popularized several high-end fashion names and the subgenre of cloud rap. So when Rocky described a then-upcoming album as “testing new sounds”, expectations went through the roof. And they paid off; his third album Testing is perhaps his best yet, a wildly ambitious and ornate collection of several different ideas and experiments unlike anything else out there.
Interestingly, Testing almost seemed like a flop before release. Several lazy, half-baked SoundCloud loosies existed for no reason and with no right to, and the official streaming release of the highly mediocre “Bad Company” with BlocBoy JB made it look like the first real taste of the album. “Bad Company”, however, thankfully didn’t make the final cut, and the first official single, “A$AP Forever”, defied any doubts about the album. Arguably one of the best songs of his career, it was a lucid, dreamlike combination of all the styles that made him great throughout the years, culminating in a beautiful ending with floating female vocals and a vocal sample from Moby. It’s telling that its initial single version isn’t even on the album, rather opting for a remix with a Kid Cudi verse, added ad-libs, and a spoken intro from T.I. Nothing on Testing is done to meet expectations. Take “Brotha Man” for example. Combining a smooth, luxurious jazz backing, a sung hook from French Montana, and background vocals from Frank Ocean and Snoop Dogg, it just shouldn’t work on paper. But the result is glorious, defying what is expected to introduce new paths and ideas for not just Rocky but for the whole genre of rap.
The thing about Testing is that it’s the kind of album that might take several listens to get accustomed to. Packed with tons of ideas and experiments over its almost-one-hour runtime, Testing may initially come across as an overblown mess. But even with a long runtime, not a single second is wasted; in fact, there’s not a bit of filler to be found. Everything here has a purpose, even when it may seem like it’s just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. Its star-studded list of collaborators and producers is perhaps the most eclectic lineup of any album in 2018, but everyone involved knows their job and does it well. “CALLDROPS” may induce winces when Kodak Black is listed as a feature, but his muffled, inspired phone call in from prison surprisingly blends well with the downbeat, melancholy guitar line and floating vocals that wouldn’t be out of place with the indie wave of the last few years.
Testing also likes to contradict its track placings to end up even more cohesive. Take the back-to-back of “F**k Sleep” and “Praise the Lord (Da Shine)” for example. The former is a cloudy, overcast alternative exploration, with Rocky purposely coming across as sleepy to portray the good and the bad sides of losing sleep. R&B starlet FKA twigs shows up to deliver a hazy, buoyant verse of vibrating falsetto, and her chemistry with Rocky is majestic, pairing the two’s dark, murky intents to sublime effect.
However, it’s hardly a moment before “Praise the Lord (Da Shine)” kicks in. Utilizing the ever-so-prevalent trend of infectious flutes woven into mainstream rap songs, Rocky’s third collaboration with UK grime powerhouse Skepta is a joyous and gleeful 3 minutes of flexing that is already on its way to becoming the album’s big hit. The compelling chemistry between the two is undeniable, as the pair list off references to Julius Caesar and interpolate a DMX flow with bounding, effortless rapport. Coming right after the aforementioned “CALLDROPS” is the triumphant “Buck Shots”, joining “Praise the Lord” in its irresistible flexes. The track contradicts the melancholy of “CALLDROPS” with its gloriously decadent synths and guest spots from Playboi Carti and 15-year-old rapper Smooky MarGiella envoking irresistible triumph. It’s these juxtapositions where Testing succeeds, somehow utilizing these to become an even more cohesive whole.
For all of the experimentation on Testing, there are still lots of signature Rocky trademarks here to satisfy longtime fans. Rocky continues his love for classic Southern rap on “Gunz N Butter”, utilizing the chopped-and-screwed vocals he’s loved so much over the years alongside a vocal sample of a classic Juicy J verse. Rocky also reunites with producer and close friend Clams Casino on “Black Tux, White Collar”, conjuring up the atmospheric cloud rap vibes of his landmark 2011 tape Live.Love.A$AP. “Tony Tone” features some of his best rapping in a while, spinning off ruminations on old times growing up in Harlem with his signature slow but hypnotic flows, egged on by background vocals from Puff Daddy. There’s still plenty of Rocky trademarks here; they’re just updated for a new palette of sound experiments, allowing Rocky to further evolve his sound while still retaining what made him great in the first place.
But the album’s best moment comes on “Purity”, its closing track. After nearly an hour of wild, off-the-wall tests and experiments with new sounds never done before, “Purity” is a mellow, beautiful rumination on finding peace of mind. Anchored by a quiet acoustic guitar line and a Lauryn Hill sample, the track’s main centerpiece is a show-stopping Frank Ocean verse in rare rapper form, perhaps the best verse on the album. But Rocky still holds the song up with an introspective verse that tackles the recent loss of his sister and his A$AP Mob affiliate A$AP Press. It’s both the most natural-sounding track on the album and the most out-there track on the album, if that makes any sense. The track is an abrupt break from Testing’s wild ambitions, offering a differing perspective on the benefits of fame and flexing found earlier on the album. “Purity” ranks among the highlights of his career, and is an excellent closer to what is perhaps Rocky’s best album yet, a brilliant exploration of his most ambitious ideas and experiments that are new to not just Rocky but to the whole genre of rap.
Photo courtesy of RCA Records