A$AP Rocky’s ‘Testing’ hardly tests new waters

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

At long last, A$AP Rocky released his third studio album, TESTING, an underwhelming experimental project that only sometimes hits its mark.

The profiles of A$AP Rocky’s collaborators and friends have skyrocketed in the past few years: Fellow New Yorker A$AP Ferg arguably boasted the track of last year with “Plain Jane,” and close friend Tyler, the Creator found mainstream success through a radically new image on Flower Boy. Yet A$AP Rocky himself has been largely quiet since 2015’s At. Long. Last. A$AP, save a few quiet guest features and forgettable appearances on A$AP Mob’s 2017 release Cozy Tapes Vol. 2: Too Cozy. A$AP Rocky’s challenge going into TESTING was to define an experimental sound, one distinct from the cloudy pop rap on which he first made his name.

Some of the tests on TESTING land favorably, especially the percussive, aggressive cuts in which A$AP Rocky’s braggadocio is allowed to shine through. On “Praise The Lord (Da Shine)” featuring U.K. rapper Skepta, A$AP Rocky brings hyperconfident, feel-good lyricism that matches his collaborator’s energetic delivery. The interplay between the sharp, breathless flute sample and incessant synth chord cements the track among the better songs on the album. Punchy snare patterns and funky atonal samples give a similar energy to “OG Beeper,” a standout from the album’s second half. Memphis was represented by Juicy J on A$AP Rocky’s last album, and here BlocBoy JB fills that role, with signature ad-libs that offer much-needed levity to an album that takes itself too seriously otherwise.

However, when A$AP Rocky reverts to melancholy, dreamy reverb — which defined his series “Live. Laugh. Love. A$AP,” or something — his creative vision becomes muddled, and the album as a whole loses steam. “Hun43rd,” for example, sounds like a discount “Peso” from A$AP Rocky’s inaugural Live. Love. A$AP. The high-pitched sample here is too quiet to command attention but loud enough to be distracting background noise. The most flattering track in this dreamy vein is “Fukk Sleep,” and even that only ramps up in its second half. The bassoony sample is among the best earworms on the album, but limp hi-hats keep the cut uninteresting until a saw synth and syrupy vocal sample bring sorely needed urgency.

The remix of lead single “A$AP Forever” interpolates the maximal stadium sounds that characterize previous A$AP Rocky tracks to disappointing effect. Lyricism has never been the rapper’s strong suit, but here he submits particularly lackluster work. The melodicism that makes his voice unique is muffled by basic distortion, an illustrative instance among many in which A$AP Rocky sacrifices quality for experimentation. The one redeeming quality of this piece is Kid Cudi’s feature. Though his verse falls short, his humming is — as always — a comforting highlight.

A promising concept for what TESTING could have been is hidden in two of the last songs, “Changes” and “Purity.” “Changes” is an emotionally pure window into A$AP Rocky’s relationship with model Chanel Iman — with whom he shared the screen in the underrated indie comedy “Dope.” It’s simultaneously a regretful ode to past love and a meditation on fame. Whereas earlier in the album — specifically in “Kids Turned Out Fine” and “CALLDROPS” — Rocky merely imitates Lauryn Hill and her signature folk sound, on “Purity,” A$AP Rocky directly samples her crooning refrain, “I gotta find peace of mind.” Frank Ocean also makes a strong appearance, turning in his best rap verse since 2012’s “Oldie.”

A$AP Rocky’s latest effort still shows glimpses of what has made him such an engaging personality since his debut, and it’ll likely be enjoyed by fans. Pretty Flacko still brags about his wardrobe, his money and the many women he has bedded. For the most part, though, TESTING is neither experimental nor quality enough to be of note. A$AP Rocky fails to commit to most of his samples, instead hiding them behind mediocre instrumentation to the point where they feel distracting. A sleepiness plagues throughout, except on tracks in which ugly, obnoxious sounds take the stage.

TESTING is undeniably A$AP Rocky’s weakest outing to date. On the opener “Distorted Records,” he claims, “Everything I do groundbreak.” No wonder the album is shaky.

Contact Seiji Sakiyama at [email protected].