There are two extreme views of A$AP Rocky: One, he’s rap’s prince, rightful inheritor of sounds and styles, a meld of past trends into one, the heir apparent; two, a naive amalgamation of sounds perfected decades ago, simply rehashed for a newer, cheaper audience, the unworthy recipient of a massive record deal harvested from hopping trends and swiping the styles of his less-famous and far-less-compensated contemporaries.
Whichever view is more correct means little now. Rocky and the rest of his A$AP crew have arrived, advance checks deposited and cleared. He’s likely at a point now where he won’t wake up one morning and discover a new artist inside himself. He will—and should—return to the well he tapped on his mixtape and major-label debut and continue to harvest hits from his high-style, low-substance stockpile. And why not? He probably has at least another No. 1 album in his tank. He’s being brought on massive tours for the likes of Rihanna and Drake, and he’s selling out venues like he did at Upstate Concert Hall this past Saturday night.
A young, eager audience filled the floor to watch the Harlem emcee weave his way through a gracefully restrained set. He’s a flashy and charismatic character fashioned with a likable smile, youthful exuberance, and an eye for style. “Only thing bigger than my ego is my mirror/Clothes get weirder,” he raps on the Clams Casino-produced “Wassup”.
He’s also a middle-of-the-road rapper in terms of both lyrical dexterity and storytelling knack. He’s more materialistic than introspective. He never wanders into uncharted territory. He takes few risks. But it works. He sells records. He sells out shows. He can bounce through a full set and hit nearly all of his touchstones in under an hour. Raps about high fashion, check; raps about loving Harlem and his A$AP crew, check; raps about sipping lean, check. There has never been much story, much narrative, to Rocky’s work. We know he fancies himself a “Fashion Killa” and we know he reps Harlem. We know he and his crew are popular with women. We know he likes certain drugs. That’s all we really get.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t put on a good show. On Saturday, he seemed miles away from the former version of himself that got into a fistfight with a drunken SXSW audience. He was humble, happy and succinct between songs. He crowdsurfed and jumped and danced his way through the night and gave A$AP Ferg a small showcase mid-set. He’s always had good taste in producers, and you could feel that more intensely during his live set. The manic, Skrillex-featuring “Wild for the Night” turned the floor into a mini-rave, while the drums on the Hit Boy-produced “Goldie” came bounding out of the stacks.
For an artist so invested in proclaiming his love of the expensive and the extravagant, the night was rather economical. No indulgent set breaks or encores, no ostentatious rigging or lighting, just a willing artist ready to satiate a hungry audience.