review: A$AP Rocky’s ‘Testing’ is his deepest dive into psychedelia yet
A great opening song can really do a lot for an album. If it grabs you the right way, it can suck you right in and put you immediately in the mood to listen to nothing else. "Distorted Records," the first song on A$AP Rocky's new Testing LP, does exactly that. Over loud, distorted bass, Rocky comes in rapping his ass off right off the bat. He dishes out brags about how he should be first in your Top 10 and about how many newer rappers were influenced by him, and with a delivery this ferocious, it's hard to feel like he doesn't deserve to boast. Especially compared to A$AP Mob's second-string starter A$AP Ferg, Rocky has been pretty quiet for a while, but "Distorted Records" reminds you why he got so successful in the first place. And with its aggressive yet abstract production, you've never heard Rocky like this.
"Distorted Records" sets the stage for Testing, but it isn't indicative of how the rest of the album sounds. It throws you right into the deep end, and from there, Testing takes you far away from shore.
After first picking up buzz as one of the leaders of the short-lived "cloud rap" movement -- which was sort of like rap's own chillwave era -- Rocky established himself as a leader of rap music in general with 2013's Long. Live. A$AP.. It was jam-packed with bangers, proved that Rocky could easily trade verses with Kendrick Lamar and Drake, and a handful of its songs remain generation-defining songs today. But instead of further exploring pop-rap appeal, Rocky eschewed many of the sounds that made him accessible and instead explored psychedelia on his next LP, 2015's At. Long. Last. ASAP (most overtly on "L$D" and "Pharsyde" but also on a handful of other songs). As weirder followups often do, it lacked the cultural impact of its predecessor, but that didn't deter Rocky, who is sticking to his guns and diving even deeper into psychedelia on Testing. It's the trippiest music he's made yet, and while he remains at the top of his game as a rapper when he wants to (as on "Distorted Records"), the album is often more focused on music that doesn't have rapping at all. Rocky himself has a co-production credit on most songs, and it's clear that he is getting more and more invested in that side of things, and in singing too.
Testing plays out like a trip, and the acid kicks in about halfway through track two, "A$AP Forever REMIX." It prominently samples Moby's "Porcelain" and starts out with Rocky once again rapping circles around the competition, until the drums cut out. Then, Rocky starts slurring like he's stoned, and then Khloe Anna comes in to sing a bridge that sounds like '60s psych-soul. It's a moment that reminds me of Edan's underground psych-rap classic Beauty and the Beat, and it's not the only time Testing echoes that album. Edan isn't a reference point that comes up too often in contemporary mainstream rap, but it's clearer than ever that Rocky is not concerned with current trends. He's got a few zeitgeist-y moments in his lyrics, like the couple times he calls Trump an asshole, or when it seems like he's paying attention to the #MeToo movement when he raps "would say 'suck my dick' but that's sexual harassment" on "Tony Tone" (though any wokeness on that topic is perhaps cancelled out by featuring Kodak Black -- who is heard recording his verse over the phone from prison -- on "CALLDROPS"), but you certainly can't pigeonhole Testing as a political album. And the only time Testing really sounds like anything on the radio is when Playboi Carti and Smooky MarGielaa show up for an auto-tune fest on "Buck Shots." For the most part, Rocky is in his own lane.
Songs like "Fukk Sleep" show Rocky getting better at balancing his pop side and his psych side; that one's got an addictive hook, but it's not a "banger." It literally sounds like he recorded it on a lack of sleep, and the FKA twigs guest vocal takes it almost into Portishead territory. (And he's aided by keyboard and co-writing from another psych/pop blender, Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT.) By the time Testing gets to stuff like "CALLDROPS," Rocky starts really getting out there. He samples a lazy-Sunday acoustic guitar from "Morning Sun" by a true legend of outsider drug music, Dave Bixby, all while toying with weird sound effects and a daydreamy delivery the way The Beach Boys did on Smiley Smile. "Buck Shots" may have those radio-ready guest verses, but it also sees Rocky experimenting with '60s-psych-style stereo panning on his voice. "Kids Turned Out Fine" has Rocky crooning LSD-induced stuff like "all the colors are alive" over a looping guitar, and then detuning both his voice and guitar to very psychedelic effect. By the time he gets to "Changes," he shifts from a lazy trip to a manic one, playing off the title not just in his lyrics about his own life changes, but also in the unexpected turns that he works into the music.
Those are sort of the "peak tripping" moments of Testing, but the album also has songs that are more casually psychedelic. The head-nodding "Tony Tone" and the Skepta-featuring "Praise The Lord (Da Shine)" are more straightforward rap songs with razor-sharp performances by Rocky, but they still work in a little hypnotic weirdness. "Brotha Man" is like Rocky's version of '70s psych/protest soul, with Rocky rattling off Marvin-sounding lines like "Young man, brotha brotha, you gotta fight for something / Stand for something, brotha understand" over a sample taken from another soul veteran, Lee Fields. It's got gorgeous, baroque pop strings, and both Snoop Dogg and Frank Ocean show up to briefly interject their voices. For "Hun43rd," Rocky gets production and a reverbed-out hook from Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange), and it sounds like the middle ground between both of their styles, with just a little extra haze thrown in.
One of the best moments on Testing is the comedown, closing track "Purity." Rocky and his production team loop part of the acoustic guitar from Lauryn Hill's "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind," and they add James Blake/Bon Iver-style voice manipulation to her voice on the hook to great effect. Rocky gives the first verse to Frank Ocean, not really to sing but to rap, and it reminds you that Frank is also pretty damn good at rapping when he wants to be. Rocky then closes the song out with his own half singing/half rapping style, and the Testing journey comes to an end.
Rocky has said in interviews (and it's also self-evident) that the title Testing is because he's testing out new sounds (it's his first album not to have an A$AP slogan as a title), so he kinds of opens himself to the possibility of some failure. And Testing is certainly not flawless -- it has moments that meander and moments where Rocky doesn't quite capture the sound he's going for -- but the risk-taking is admirable. He probably knows his fans want more songs like "Fuckin' Problems" and "Wild for the Night," but the A$AP Rocky of 2018 isn't interested in making music like that and it's exciting to see him caring more about creativity than commercial appeal. It may not be as groundbreaking, but an album it reminds me of is Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak. Kanye had a vision that was outside of his comfort zone, he failed to fully accomplish what he set out to accomplish, and a lot of fans were rubbed the wrong way by it at the time. But Kanye never looked back, and now 808s is a certifiable classic. If Testing seems disappointing now, maybe this one just needs a little time to settle in too.