What does A$AP Rocky really want? Sometimes I think it’s just for everyone to know he’s well-rounded. He raps, produces, models, designs, directs, acts, fronts a rap crew, and steers whatever AWGE is. People don’t expect boys from Harlem to have that range. You can see it in certain folks’ pleasant surprise to see kids grow up with different plans than city work or career college, in their tendency to size up muscular boys and telegraph what kind of sporting career they’re angling at, and in the nagging habit of genteel older white folks to adopt a light, outdated AAVE and say things like “my man” to you because they learned some jive in the ’70s. Everyone means well, but what they’re really doing is socializing us into a sense of creative scope that’s smaller than our actual sphere of possibilities. If you’re a dreamer, that puts a chip on your shoulder, and you live to show the world what you’re capable of.
There are moments when the new A$AP Rocky album, Testing, gestures at this desire to be understood and appreciated, to look back at the young entrepreneur’s road to riches in amused disbelief at how a young man makes it out of homeless shelters and onto magazine covers and movie screens. “Tony Tone” opens up saluting Rocky’s parents and wondering why other people go to the trouble of siring children they appear to have no intention of raising. Elsewhere, “OG Beeper,” offers a rags-to-riches story where a young Rocky craves cash and notoriety, then present-day Rocky relishes the fact that he finally found it. It’s told in a cadence that resembles a nursery rhyme, but unlike, say, Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” which uses its cautionary kiddie-tale conceit to lay out stakes and consequences for its ill-fated stickup kid protagonist, “Beeper” is relieved to get through the bad parts so it can lounge around in the fact the guy’s rich now.
Testing gets off to a rowdy, promising start, but as the album unfolds, Rocky’s interest in the act of rapping dwindles, as he gets to work cultivating an intriguing sensory experience. It’s playing a different game than your average 2018 hip-hop album most of the time, one you notice 30 seconds into the album opener “Distorted Records,” when a flatulent bass line cleaves the silence, and the rapper picks up rhyming over a beat whose textures and intricacies slowly divide and expand like bacteria. Testing is a drug album, but to paraphrase Chance the Rapper, they’re not doing the same drugs anymore. LSD is clearly the guiding light, where the inspirations for the great early A$AP records were southern rap, promethazine syrup, and the dearly departed A$AP Yams’s exquisite taste. Rocky’s been talking about acid since 2015, when he lead his sophomore album At Long Last A$AP with the psych-rap nugget “L$D,” but Testing is the first A$AP record that actually sounds designed by, and for, people who are tripping.
Often, Testing’s vocals feel like enticing fabric swatches rather than centralized narrative lines. (That makes sense. People on hallucinogens fixate on colors and patterns to a point where they can describe the sights of a trip in lurid detail for days afterward.) The best songs, like the Smooky Margielaa and Playboi Carti tag team “Buck Shots,” warp the sound of the human voice, sometimes at the cost of trailing off in the middle of what sound like good verses. “Back in my younger days all I want was braids,” Rocky raps in the third verse, after spending the first two just pinballing cocky insult lines. “All my mama want from me was grades.” Instead of resolving the story, he disappears again. “My biggest distraction is that I get distracted,” he says in “Changes.” Rocky’s raps always attempted a risky balance of style and substance, but these songs dip in and out of profundity like someone testing steaming bathwater for temperature but never taking the plunge.
This quality might make Testing the first post–Playboi Carti, A-list major-label rap album. The best moments of Carti’s AWGE debut, Die Lit, sounded like the Ewok scenes in Return of the Jedi; human voices comingled with humanoid noises to commute both an expression of and an alien distortion of the English language. On Testing, voices pop in and out of frame, samples get chopped and screwed, record scratches cut into the present with shards of the recent past, and uncredited collaborators slide in and out unannounced. While the approach to vocals mirrors Carti’s work, the way samples are used mirrors that of excommunicated A$AP Mob affiliate Spaceghostpurrp, whose Blackland Radio 66.6 and Purrped and Chopped tapes drafted the same kind of overcooked Three 6 Mafia–obsessed splatter-paintings-on-a-bedroom-wall level in 2011. All these records make for appropriate summer music, not because they elicit the ease of speeding down a highway on a sunny afternoon but because they sound like what suffering on a hot day feels like, the sensation of everything inside and outside of you slowly melting.
What Testing has that some of its antecedents might not, is clout. Flacko wants you to know this thing cost money and deep connections to make. There’s Outkast and Lauryn Hill interpolations; instrumental tracks from Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes and MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden; and vocals from Frank Ocean and FKA Twigs. It takes a special kind of magnetism, Testing seems to want you to know, to gather all of these parties for the same project. Rocky often makes fascinating use of his guests. In “Gunz N Butter,” he raps over a screwed-up slice of the Project Pat song “Still Ridin’ Clean” until Juicy J, Pat’s brother and the original song’s producer, pops out disorientingly mimicking the same flow. On “Praise the Lord (Da Shine),” Skepta crushes a verse that shouts out DMX, and “Tony Tone” restores some old New York feeling with Diddy ad-libs and a funny mini-skit where Rocky gets cussed out by a listener for language.
As often as Testing expresses good taste and synergy, it makes some fascinatingly weird moves. The decision to sample Moby’s Play on “A$AP Forever” and Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged 2.0 on “Purity” smacks of the kind of premature “’90s-kid” nostalgia for turn-of-the-millennium monoculture that’ll evoke a wince from anyone who still remembers the sound of “Porcelain” dripping out of all available PA systems and TV commercials in the year 2000. (There is, perhaps, a sort of poetic justice to Rocky making disrespectful rap music out of an album that cashed out making easy listening out of old black blues and soul singers’ voices.) “Calldrops” ditches beats and raps as Rocky sings a wan lullaby over a strummed guitar, joined eventually by Kodak Black singing through what sounds like a jail phone. “Changes” is an audacious psych-pop track with guitar melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place on an old Harry Nilsson record, trippy vocal harmonies, and sharp beat changes. Both tracks feel like the logical conclusion of a journey beyond the boundaries of hip-hop hinted at with “L$D.” Both tracks also feel like the moment in every good ’60s psych album where the band leans too hard into its “muse” and loses itself (See: “Mind Gardens” from the Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday.)
The last third of Testing is enticing in some spots and unlistenable in others. “Kids Turned Out Fine” serves the beginnings of a great melody but keeps warping and modulating it, so you never retain a sense of keys and chord progressions for longer than a few seconds. The experiment might’ve made an interesting curio coming from a band with formidable musique concrète chops like Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention circa Uncle Meat. Here, it flounders because Rocky is not a natural singer, and because his raps borrow liberally from the mix of impressionistic words and G-Herbo flows Frank Ocean knocked out of the park on songs like “Chanel” and “Unity.” When Frank himself turns up on “Purity,” he delivers a verse that’s very nearly the best on the whole album, mostly because it’s one of a half-dozen times Testing commits to a single mood long enough to pass it along. (What does Rocky do? Talk through it.)
Testing is, by turns, fascinating but disorienting mood music and good, solid druggy rap music. One wishes there were more serviceable rap tracks like “Fuck Sleep,” “Buck Shots,” “Purity,” and “Hun43rd” — where Rocky bounces the woozy post-regional North-meets-South swagger he’s good at off other singers and rappers with unique vocal tones — and less studio wank like “Kids Turned Out Fine.” The new music does an arresting job of solidifying A$AP Rocky as a director of dizzying, unusual sounds but not enough of the work required to remind listeners why they love to hear him rap three years after his last official solo album. Like the Beatles’ “Glass Onion,” the puckish White Album deep cut John Lennon used to pour fuel on nonsensical Beatles conspiracy theories for kicks in 1968, Testing is densely layered but not often “deep.”